Know the facts around vehicle mass reduction with automotive aluminum alloys.
- Does aluminum offer the lowest carbon footprint when full life cycle is considered?
- Is producing a pound of new aluminum 4X more carbon intensive than producing a pound of new steel?
- Can aluminum be recycled?
- Do you have to separate aluminum before it can be recycled?
- How long will it take before today’s aluminum cars can be recycled?
- How much aluminum scrap is currently available?
- What strides has the aluminum industry made to limit its environmental impact?
Yes. When considering the full life cycle, and using the correct input data, government and auto industry studies confirm that—among competing materials—aluminum offers the smallest total carbon footprint, not just for the tailpipe, but rather when all phases of a vehicle’s life cycle are considered.
- In a 2014 peer-reviewed LCA, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory compared the full carbon life cycle emission of both steel and aluminum, and concluded aluminum offers a smaller total carbon footprint.
- In 2015, Ford and Magna studied the same issue and reached the same conclusion. Specifically, when comparing two five-passenger sedans, the aluminum-intensive model was found environmentally superior to its advanced high-strength steel counterpart.
The notion that producing a pound of primary aluminum is more carbon-intensive than producing a pound of steel is fundamentally misleading. First, the majority of aluminum used in automotive applications already has a large amount of recycled content and recycled aluminum is about 92 percent less carbon-intensive than primary aluminum. Secondly, it takes far more steel by weight to do the same job as aluminum in an automobile part. For closures and body structures, typically one pound of aluminum replaces about 1.6 pounds of steel. This significantly minimizes the up-front material production impact.
Yes. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable. Given the high intrinsic value of the metal, recyclers are highly incentivized to recover and recycle as much aluminum as possible. In fact, aluminum used for automotive applications is already recovered at a rate of 91 percent.
No, separation is not necessary for recycling. In small-scale use automakers previously did not separate aluminum. As use has become more widespread with penetration into high-volume cars and trucks, automakers now realize there is meaningful economic value in separating aluminum. Ford and Jaguar Land Rover have embraced closed-loop recycling to realize the latent value in aluminum scrap.
There’s a common misconception that aluminum parts on cars won’t be available for recycling for 12 to 15 years. This is simply not true. The majority of aluminum shipped today in the automotive sector is already made with significant amounts of recycled material. For example, nearly 70 percent of 2014 industry shipments in the auto market were for foundry products like engine blocks, which have an average recycled content of more than 80 percent. Additionally, recycled aluminum sheet content is on the rise as companies like Ford and Jaguar Land Rover embraced closed-loop recycling.
There is 5 – 6 million tons of available aluminum scrap in the U.S. each year. Considering that aluminum is far lighter than steel, and has a smaller market overall, this is proportionally comparable to 80 million tons of steel scrap available. In both cases, scrap might be used for automotive or any number of other applications – packaging, building & construction, consumer durables, etc. As demand for aluminum grows, so too will available scrap.
Current data confirms the energy needed to produce primary aluminum is down more than a quarter since 1995 and carbon footprint is down nearly 40 percent. This is equivalent to 37 million barrels of oil saved and 25 million tons of CO2e GHG reduced per year. These strides can be attributed partly to the industry’s growing use of renewable hydroelectric power—from 63 percent of capacity in 1995 to 75 percent today. Add to that, recycling aluminum saves more than 90 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with primary aluminum production and requires only eight percent of the energy, and recycling recovery rates for aluminum are in excess of 90 percent, which it has been for decades. From fuel economy to full life cycle emissions to recycling, aluminum is the most environmentally superior automotive material.