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Innovations in Aluminum Recycling (Closing the Loop)

car frame being manufactured

Individuals in the recycling and sustainability industries tout the infinite recyclability of aluminum, making it one of the best materials to work with on the planet. Its low melting point and malleability are unparalleled, yet industry experts seek to make it perform even better for the Earth. What innovations make closing the loop feel more like a reality?

Considering Circular Cars and Alloy Sorting

The World Economic Forum partnered with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to make eco-friendly transportation greener. Cars are a composite of countless materials, so is focusing on aluminum to create a no-waste and zero-emissions vehicle possible? Additionally, the venture wanted to make transportation last longer to optimize its life cycle.

This requires collaborating with OEMs to bolster the percentage of aluminum used in vehicles while eliminating mixing alloys, which makes the recycling process cumbersome and less efficient. Scraped aluminum could be used to make other products if combined with other materials, but the circular economy relies on recreating the same output repeatedly. 

The Circular Car Initiative leads this charge by promoting simple part compositions and acknowledging how much better aluminum performs in collisions and long-term corrosion resistance. Better sorting and specifications will be quintessential. 

Acknowledging Downcycling

Recyclers have a higher resistance against processing materials if mixtures are present. It may result in downcycling or depreciating the original object’s value as the aluminum becomes another product. Unexpected ingredients make it into aluminum streams, disincentivizing facilities from recycling.

The sector’s best minds are trying to find a way to eliminate these sneaky inclusions, like copper wires and steel rivets. The vehicle and building sectors recycle 90% or more of their aluminum, yet much goes to packaging or construction that alters the metal into something of lesser worth and sturdiness.

What innovations are out there to prevent downcycling and prioritize maintaining or upgrading aluminum’s worth instead of passing it off to another corporation? Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy and X-rays are possibilities for smart scrap processing. Equipment integrates with software to identify material densities for targeted separating. AI is another contender for learning how to isolate alloys.

Implementing Mechanical Vapor Recompression

Aluminum recycling discourse may focus on the metal itself, but a comprehensive strategy for decarbonization uses all the byproducts, including heat produced from processing. Upcycling waste heat is a golden opportunity for aluminum to make the most from smelting through mechanical vapor recompression (MVR). Appropriate usage of MVR may reduce the footprint of alumina refining by 70% or more.

MVR is a way to repurpose steam and other industrial fluid byproducts as heat. The modern technologies in this equation are renewable energy generators that eliminate the need for oil- and coal-powered smelting and refining and next-generation boilers. 

The implications of this are widespread, reducing environmental exploitation by eliminating the need for as much bauxite mining — the source of alumina.

Making Aluminum Recycling Even Better

Making aluminum the dream eco-friendly material it should be requires reanalyzing what a circular economy looks like. It would not mix materials, introduce foreign contaminants, or pass scrap materials to another industry when one cannot recreate its product. These projects begin this mental and practical shift for a more eco-aware and streamlined aluminum industry.

Author Bio

Ellie is a freelance writer who also works as an associate editor for She has been passionate about sustainability and the environment since she was a child, and she blends that passion with her interest in science and tech to write about the ways in which we’re using modern technology to protect our planet. She currently lives in Raleigh, NC, with her husband and their cat.