Interview "We still see a lot of opportunities for more efficient, sustainable dross handling."
Despite the ongoing pandemic, sustainability is more important than ever before. The reasons for this are government regulations and self-imposed goals set by companies to protect the planet. In an exclusive interview, James Herbert, Global Sales Director at ALTEK, discusses the trend and explains the role dross technologies play in it.
What is the current state of the global aluminum industry in terms of sustainability? How does dross play a role?
James Herbert: Aluminum has many advantages. It is lightweight, highly durable, resistant to corrosion and infinitely recyclable – making it an environmentally appealing choice for the metals industry. In fact, nearly 75 % of all aluminum ever produced in the U.S. is still in use today. According to the Aluminum Association, “aluminum can be recycled directly back into itself over and over again in a true closed loop.”
However, there are a number of challenges to overcome to make aluminum truly sustainable. The biggest challenge is the significant amount of energy it takes to produce aluminum initially. Recycling scrap aluminum requires just 5 % of the energy needed to produce new aluminum, resulting in a 95 % energy savings to use recycled aluminum over virgin material. The industry should look at ways to minimize the amount of energy it takes to create or recycle the material and also find cleaner methods for producing the needed energy. Generally, the more that we can recycle, less primary aluminum becomes required to replenish the material, and less energy is required to form the metal units.
Dross also has a critical role in sustainability. Dross is an inevitable by-product of the aluminum melting process and can account for up to 5 % of a facility’s total production by weight. When skimmed from a furnace, dross can contain up to 80 % of aluminum which, if neglected, can diminish quickly through oxidation and be forever lost from the metal stream.
It is estimated that about 3 million tons of dross is generated annually, and as much as 50 % currently goes into landfills. Even though a number of different technologies have been developed over the years to address the economic and environmental issues associated with dross, we still see a lot of opportunities for more efficient, sustainable dross handling.
Even in times of the pandemic, why is sustainability such a big issue?
James Herbert: As companies focus on building back better in the aftermath of the pandemic, we are finding that the environment remains a crucial priority. Many aluminum organizations are holding conversations with customers regarding what they can do to meet their sustainability objectives on time, regardless of the impact COVID-19 may have had on slowing their progress.
Organizations are still prioritizing sustainability amid COVID-19 because of existing corporate social responsibility goals and mandates they need to meet. Furthermore, the circumstances of the past year prompted many in the industry to reflect on what is important to them and what their values are. Our travel habits changed, we flew and drove less miles, causing less pollution. This year, it is anticipated that people will continue to wake up to alternatives and understand that there is an expectation from the end user and the general public for different, more environmentally-focused products moving forward.
What are the most common/pressing problems with sustainability and aluminum?
James Herbert: We sit at a critical juncture for the future of sustainability in our industry. The industry’s future depends on sustainable technology development and reducing the carbon footprint of aluminum production. The most pressing problem is that the latest scientific evidence on the health of the world’s ecosystems has resulted in urgent calls to action being made to preserve the planet. This is one reason why the European aluminum’s circular aluminum action plan has set a strategy for achieving aluminum’s full potential for a circular economy by 2030.
The changes to the way we work and think about sustainability as a result of the pandemic, and resource depletion overall, mean the aluminum landscape will inevitably continue to adapt and change. COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for many organizations to review their sustainability goals and technologies, and those in the metals industry should be positioned to make sure that sustainability becomes a central guiding principle in the years to come.
What are the challenges in enforcing global sustainability around dross?
James Herbert: One of the key challenges is that there is a patchwork set of regulations around the world. As an example, salt slag is classified as a toxic and hazardous waste in many parts of the world, meaning it must be dealt with appropriately according to local regulations and current legislation. Europe classifies it as a hazardous waste, while it is not considered to be one in the U.S., though we anticipate that changing at some point in the future. In China, laws are changing quite rapidly to enforce sustainability, and the country has recently classified salt slag as hazardous. These different approaches to legislation around the world make it challenging for an industry to adopt best practices as standard.
Which dross technologies can be used to achieve global sustainability in the aluminum industry?
James Herbert: Finding the technologies that provide a cost-efficient recovery of metal and other valuable materials – and environmentally safe solutions for residual waste materials – is increasingly important to the aluminum industry.
Over the years, many companies have looked to address both the economic and environmental issues of handling dross. There are a number of different strategies and technologies today in terms of dross management, including dross presses and rotary coolers. Whichever the technology, the typical approach is to cool the dross as soon as it is skimmed from the furnace to stop the oxidation of metal units trapped in the dross.
What do you foresee in the aluminum industry’s future if these dross technologies are not used?
James Herbert: If sustainable dross technologies are not adopted, life will continue, but the industry will not reap the economic and environmental benefit. There are some companies today that are already implementing dross technologies, and those are the organizations that will have a competitive edge.
The other thing to bear in mind is that consumers are looking for a strong sense of corporate responsibility and a solid environmental track record. If companies want to stay in business and be competitive, they are going to have to adopt these sorts of approaches to be successful.
In your opinion, which sectors are leading by example and which ones are lagging behind when it comes to dross?
James Herbert: The way aluminum organizations handle their dross can be viewed as a microcosm of how they handle the entire manufacturing operation to some degree. If they maximize the value of the dross and handle it in an eco-friendly manner, that trend typically carries on throughout the business. The ones that are investing in technology to responsibly manage their dross are leading by example, and they are also seeing a return on their investment.
The adoption of sustainable methods of aluminum production will not only drastically reduce landfill and atmospheric pollution, but it will drive the aluminum industry to become a zero-waste industry. Although much progress has been made across the industry with regard to reducing the energy consumption and carbon footprint, there is a long way to go.
What could be the reason for this?
James Herbert: The reason is that many in the industry have traditionally viewed dross management and processing as a non-core or the “dirty” side of the industry. But the world is changing, and there is an increased focus on the circular economy, and how dross is recycled and disposed of is a part of that equation.
Dross is not going to be the sole driver of the industry’s sustainability goals – that would be like the tail wagging the dog. But it is part of the process, and if it is seriously addressed, it is one of the few parts of the process that can provide a return on an organization’s bottom line as well. At the end of the day, as an industry, there are a lot of materials vying for the same products that we are with aluminum – plastics, fuels, composite materials, other metals and more. There is a lot of competition out there, so we have to work together to make sure that aluminum is environmentally friendly and sustainable – more so than any other product out there.
Thank you for the interview, Mr. Herbert!