Aluminium – a controversial element?

13 July 2016 | Mirja Brand

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Aluminium – it is used in a large amount of products we use every day without even realising it. What are the implications of our aluminium use on people and planet? | Photo: findexperts.com.ng

Most of us use aluminium in our everyday life. How much aluminium is used on a daily basis is not always clear or obvious to most of us, but whenever we call up a friend, use our laptop or take the bus, aluminium is involved. Aluminium can be found in cell phones, electronic devices, cars, public transportation, aeroplanes, kitchenware, packaging, cans and cosmetics.

As well as everyday uses, the use of aluminium in the military, such as arms and weapons, is immense. As such, the application of aluminium spreads to a whole range of different areas: from the weaponry and arms industry, to the construction of new dams for factories’ electricity supply, to its everyday use by almost all of us across the globe – our daily lives would look very different if we didn’t use aluminium, especially in our highly technological world. Its many favourable qualities such as being lightweight, soft, flexible, and its ability to form into numerous shapes, make it a popular alloy with other metals. It is made from minerals such as bauxite or cryolite which contain aluminium oxide, and is later refined into alumina before finally being smelted into aluminium.

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Aluminium is used in electronics for various reasons, including its ability to conduct heat quickly. It is used on the inside for wiring or lighting, but also on the outside for computer keyboards (pictured) or laptop casings. | Photo: MorgueFile

Environmental issues

Although actual aluminium is portrayed as being environmentally friendly, the process of extracting and processing it can have disastrous effects. Mountain summits are flattened, forests are cut down, enormous amounts of carbon and other gases are emitted into the area as toxic red mud (where bauxite is found) is deposited into nearby bodies of water. Futhermore, mining sites can have a critical effect on biodiversity as it mainly occurs in tropical areas and involves large land areas. People who live in areas affected by this also suffer from the consequences.

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Bauxite mining in Odisha, East India. | Photo: Samarendra Das & Felix Padel

Socio-cultural issues

What, then, is the relationship between the aluminium industry and the destruction of indigenous communities? Mining often occurs on indigenous lands. In the Indian state of Odisha, for instance, the Khond, an indigenous community, has been severely affected by the aluminium industry: the displacement of people because of the building of smelters or refineries poses a severe threat for a society like the Khonds. The mountains, where the bauxite can be found, play a crucial role in their religion and constitutes a large part of their social life. By destroying their livelihood, they are forced to change their ways of living. The impacts that the mining and production of aluminium has on indigenous societies is not confined to India. Elsewhere in the world indigenous communities also struggle to keep control over their land, such as the a recent case with mining company Glencore in Queensland, Australia.

In short, whatever we use aluminium for, the fact remains that its extracting and processing pose problems for our environment and to the people who inhabit it. A rising demand for goods made of aluminium means more metals need to be mined from the earth to then be processed into aluminium.

What can be done? The complexities of land rights and environmentally friendly practices in the extractive industry are not likely to be resolved easily. We can, however, start by being more careful with our products, making them last longer. This ensures we decrease the demand for more aluminium. When we don’t want our product anymore, we can make sure we don’t just bin it, landing it in a landfill, but we can find out where to take it so that the metal can be recycled. One of the major perks of aluminium in terms of sustainability is that it can be reused for the same purposes over and over again. Unlike many other materials, aluminium does not lose its unique properties. So by being sensible about how we use and dispose of our aluminium products, we can start to decrease the negative impact it is having.

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Aluminium cans. | Photo: scrapmonster.com

 

Researched and written by Mirja Brand

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