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Aluminium for the world

Producing aluminium consumes a huge amount of energy and pollutes the environment. For every tonne of aluminium, two to four tonnes of highly toxic bauxite tailings (‘red mud’) are also produced during further processing. This waste product with no practical use is stored in landfill sites across the world, some of which are open to the elements. Leaks and floods are regular occurrences.

  • Bauxite is the raw material from which aluminium is made, and its consumption is increasing by 4 per cent each year. Germany is the largest consumer in per capita terms at 40 kg per head of population. The lion’s share goes to the automotive industry: the average car contains 150 kg, and lightweighting is pushing this figure steadily higher.
  • Bauxite has been mined in Ghana since 1940. Up until now, it has only been exported in its unprocessed state.
  • Besides gold, Ghana also has significant deposits of bauxite (the third largest in the world) and manganese. Bauxite mining is the preserve of the Ghana Bauxite Company (GBC), 80 per cent of which is owned by China’s Bosai Minerals Group and the remaining 20 per cent by the Ghanaian Government. Up until now, most mining has been done at the open-cast Awaso Mine. Due to the low transport capacity on the railway line linking the mine to the port of Takoradi 240 km away, where shipments are loaded, GBC is working below its capacity limit.
  • Bauxite production in Ghana amounted to 1,011,302 tonnes in 2018, down 31 per cent on 2017 (BMWi 2019)
  • In 2012, 14 per cent of Ghana’s bauxite exports were destined for Germany (MISEREOR).
  • The Ghanaian Government has signed agreements with the Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa) and the Aluminium Company of Canada (Alcan) so that the feasibility of processing bauxite into aluminium in the country itself can be investigated. Two alternative locations are being studied for this purpose, Shama-Ahanta East Metropolitan Assembly and Tema Municipal Assembly. The calculations are based on an annual output of between 1.5 and 2 million tonnes of aluminium, which would produce around 5 million tonnes of bauxite tailings every year. However, this would also require the inadequate transport infrastructure to be upgraded and the energy supply to be significantly improved.
  • Germany is the largest aluminium manufacturer in the EU.
  • Aluminium production doubled in the country between 1970 and 2015, when 15 per cent more aluminium was obtained through recycling than from ore.
  • Almost 50 per cent of Germany’s aluminium is consumed by the transport sector (aircraft and automotive construction), and this figure is on the rise.
  • To produce a tonne of aluminium metal, it takes nearly four tonnes of bauxite, sodium hydroxide, half a tonne of anode coke and 50 kilograms of cryolite (Na3AlF6), plus around 15,000 kWh of electricity. The process generates three tonnes of virtually unusable bauxite tailings as well as emissions in the form of dust and hydrogen fluoride.
  • To make aluminium, the bauxite has to be mixed with the sodium hydroxide and heated to around 200°C. For every tonne of aluminium, two to four tonnes of bauxite tailings are generated as a waste product.
  • These bauxite tailings contain highly corrosive sodium hydroxide, iron oxide, titanium oxide and – depending on the composition of the original ore – a range of heavy metals including arsenic, chromium or mercury as well as radioactive uranium and thorium. The problem posed by the toxic bauxite tailings remains unsolved. Across the world, it is stored in landfill sites, some of which are open to the elements. Leaks and floods are regular occurrences, causing the toxic material to enter rivers.
  • Germany’s landfill sites are also storing bauxite tailings from six decades of aluminium production. The EU has issued a ruling requiring all abandoned landfills to be rehabilitated over the next few years, meaning that the bauxite tailings will have to be hermetically sealed off from the environment.
  • Recycling aluminium can save up to 95 per cent of the energy required to extract it from bauxite. However, smaller aluminium components in particular, such as aluminium foil and coffee pods, are generally removed from the recycling cycle when they are incinerated together with residual waste.
  • It takes at least 14 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy to produce one kilogram of aluminium for coffee pods from the bauxite ore. With the current electricity mix in Germany, 8.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released on average for every kilogram of aluminium.
  • A single pod weighs between 1 and 1.5 grams when empty. With consumption now up at over 3 billion pods a year, this means that between 4,000 and 4,500 tonnes of aluminium are required annually in order to make them.
  • Producing around a kilogram of aluminium from bauxite requires at least 14 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which in itself generates eight kilograms of carbon dioxide. Making aluminium pods consumes a lot of energy. One kilogram can be made into around 1,000 pods.
  • The environmental and health damage wrought by bauxite mining is similar to that caused by other forms of open-cast mining, such as gold. Blasting during the extraction process and the resulting earth tremors can cause buildings to collapse, while the dust is an increasing cause of illness among locals living near the mine. Silicosis – the ‘miners’ disease’ – is especially common.


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