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Aluminium Recycling Is A Missed Opportunity
Nov 14, 2017

While recycled aluminium accounted for 32 per cent of total worldwide production in 2010, in the GCC it only accounted for 2 percent

Waste recycling is an economic driver that is underserved in the GCC. In particular, there is great potential for recycling aluminium in the GCC since regional smelters account for about 10 per cent of total primary aluminium production globally.

It is estimated primary aluminium production worldwide accounts for 1 per cent of man-made greenhouse gases, 40 per cent of which are the result of the aluminium production process itself (direct emissions), and about 60 per cent resulting from power generation (indirect emissions).

The production of primary aluminium is an energy-intensive process that contributes significantly to emissions and pollution. Recycling aluminium requires only a fraction (about 5 per cent) of the energy requirements needed to produce primary aluminium.

According to UK-based World Aluminium, aluminium recycling saves more than 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Paying for itself

Recycling aluminium will ensure a continuous supply at only a fraction of the original cost incurred to produce it from its mineral origin, bauxite. The metal’s ability to be 100 per cent recycled without losing its original properties makes it an intrinsically valuable commodity, which essentially pays for its own recycling cost. In the GCC, the total value of aluminium scrap generated is estimated at 400,000 to 550,000 tonnes a year (t/y).

But while recycled aluminium accounted for 32 per cent of total worldwide production in 2010, in the GCC it only accounted for 2 per cent.

Globally, scrap aluminium is generated from four sources: primary aluminium production; downstream aluminium processing; end-of-life products; and spent pot lining (SPL) and dross.

In the GCC, all the aluminium scrap generated through the production of primary aluminium is recycled. Despite being a small percentage of the total aluminium produced, the aluminium smelters in the region gain the benefits of recycling scrap as well as helping to reduce the scrap and pollution generated.

The GCC has a well-developed aluminium downstream industry feeding the construction sector: the majority of secondary aluminium produced is used in construction. The scrap generated by extrusion companies is estimated at 17 per cent of total aluminium processed. Fabricators produce scrap estimated to be 10 per cent of the total aluminium fabricated, whereas the rolling mills generate scrap estimated at 3 per cent of the total aluminium processed and casting produces an estimated 7 per cent scrap of the total aluminium cast.

Handling scrap

Secondary aluminium producers have three options to handle scrap: recycle the scrap in-house; sell the scrap back to primary producers, who in turn recycle it; or sell the scrap to traders and recycling companies.

End-of-life scrap is aluminium scrap generated when a product is disposed of. Examples are aluminium cans, vehicles, electrical equipment and so on. The aluminium scrap in these products can be found in junk yards or municipal solid waste dumps. The total aluminium scrap generated from end-of-life scrap is estimated at 300,000 t/y and accounts for an estimated 60-70 per cent of total aluminium scrap generated in the GCC.

SPL and aluminium dross are hazardous by-products of aluminium smelters. Aluminium dross is produced in regular intervals whereas SPL is more cyclical, given the long life of furnace pot lines. In the smelting process, refined alumina is dissolved in a molten bath of fluoride compounds and an electric current is passed through the bath, which causes the alumina to dissociate to form liquid aluminium and oxygen and then react with carbon in the bath of fluoride compounds to produce carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Molten aluminium collects in the bottom of the individual pots and is removed under vacuum into tapping crucibles. Aluminium dross consists of two types: white (primary aluminium production) and black (secondary aluminium production). Produced cyclically when a pot line of aluminium furnaces is fully spent, the pot line life is six to seven years and consists of two cuts. The first cut is rich in carbon and the second is rich in refractory.

Because more than 60 per cent of regional aluminium scrap is generated from end-of-life scrap, government and community support is required to enable appropriate collection of aluminium products once they reach the end of their usable life. Globally and regionally, aluminium can collection and recycling is the most developed. In addition to government and community support, a strong collection system is required to ensure aluminium scrap is collected in an efficient manner.

Downstream investment

Another key factor needed to support the development of an aluminium recycling industry is investment in downstream industries that can benefit and use recycled aluminium. This is particularly true for the automotive industry’s original and spare parts.

It is estimated that 74 per cent of all aluminium scrap generated in the GCC is currently exported to international markets for further processing. Scrap traders export the waste because of a lack of local capabilities to process it. Global markets also pay better premiums thus making it more profitable to export versus recycle locally. Additionally, there is no government regulation banning the export of scrap.

In the case of dross and SPL, the Basel Convention restricts the movement of hazardous waste rich in aluminium. Studies have been conducted to establish a central SPL and dross treatment plant in the GCC, but it proved challenging as the facility would only be feasible through the collection of SPL waste from all the smelters in the region. The Basel Convention restricts that from happening in the GCC without changes in the local regulation to allow it.

For an efficient and well-developed aluminium recycling industry, investment in strong and structured waste and scrap collection is needed in the GCC. This should be accompanied by investment in social awareness regarding the benefits of recycling; systems alone are not enough for a successful recycling ecosystem. In developed economies, children are educated at a young age at schools about the benefits of recycling. The final factor that will drive investment in recycling facilities, collection systems and education is government intervention to minimise the volumes of scrap exported.

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