Alumina is vital for modern, technology-driven living, and since 1970, there has been an almost 600% increase in its mining. Between 2000 and 2021, global yearly primary production has almost trebled, going from 25,000 thousand metric tons to 67,000 thousand metric tons, according to the International Aluminum Institute. While recycling aluminum can save more than 90% of the massive quantities of energy required to manufacture the primary product, only about 30% of total yearly consumption is recycled.
“Aluminum production accounts for 2 percent of all greenhouse gases worldwide, or more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year,” Jim Wormington of Human Rights Watch states. A 2022 report published by Zero Waste Europe found that the material production sector currently causes approximately 25% of global emissions, with material production expected to double from 2015 to 2060. Four sectors—aluminum, concrete, steel and plastics—are responsible for 78% of greenhouse gas emissions. Taking a ‘business as usual’ approach to material production will result “in a trajectory towards warming of 2.5°C”, the report warned.
A typical smartphone, among the 16 billion and counting smartphones we’ve made since 2007, can be 14% aluminum. Up to 50% of the five billion laptops and desktops we’ve made since 2006 can be made up of steel and aluminum. This light metal plays an essential role in the manufacture of electric vehicles, which can use up to 25% more aluminum than traditional vehicles. A wind turbine can contain three tons of aluminum.
“Lightweight and strong, durable and infinitely recyclable, energy-saving aluminum is the sustainable material of choice.” If we are to believe the US Aluminum Association, who could not love aluminum, the green metal that is helping drive the net-zero, carbon-neutral tech transition to a technologically enhanced clean and sustainable new world? “As we strive for a more energy-efficient future,” the Association tells us, “aluminum continues to provide innovative solutions and competitive advantages for businesses and consumers.”
“For more than 130 years, aluminum – a material common to so many products consumers use daily – has been produced the same way. That’s about to change,” Apple environment vice president, Lisa Jackson, gushed in 2019. The innovators and brand people have been focusing on aluminum, and as Alf Barrios, the CEO of mining giant Rio Tinto, put it, “This is another important step towards zero-carbon aluminium and a more sustainable future.”
Both Jackson and Barros were talking about a ‘carbon-free’ aluminum, one that allowed the Apple Watch 7 to promote itself as being made with ‘green’ aluminum. Media headlines trumpeted iPhones being made from “a special kind of ‘carbon free’ aluminum… brand new aluminum that produces only oxygen… ushering in the age of clean aluminum.”
What rubbish. What greenwashing. Such fake news. There is nothing remotely green or clean about aluminum mining, as I was to find out when I chatted with Pat and Nuala Geoghegan from County Limerick, Ireland. Since the early eighties, their lives have been ruined, their children have been sickened, their animals have got sick and died because of rampant pollution that they believe is a result of alumina processing. The Irish state abandoned them. Not just that, the state attempted to assassinate their characters because they dared speak up.
What has happened to Pat and Nuala has happened to millions and millions who happen to live close to mining concerns. And now we’re told that to get to our ‘green’ and ‘clean’ tech future we must double the amount of mining.