Secondary Aluminum Production | The Aluminum Association

Secondary Production

Quick Read

Secondary Production is the process of recycling aluminum scrap into aluminum that can be used again—an environmentally sound process that is 92 percent more energy efficient than primary production. The increased adoption of recycled aluminum in manufacturing has created significant economic and environmental wins for both industry and consumers. Nearly 40 percent of the North American aluminum supply is now created through secondary production, up around 10 percent since the early 1990s.

Take-Away Facts

  • Positive environmental impact
    Not only does secondary aluminum production use less energy, it reduces landfill waste, contributes much lower greenhouse gas emissions and greatly reduces costly international transportation. A 10 percent increase in aluminum end-of-life recycling rates decreases industry greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent.
  • Green goals achievement
    Leading companies such as Apple use recycled aluminum to achieve their aggressive sustainable manufacturing goals while building lightweight and artfully designed end products that delight customers. The company achieved a 66 percent recycling rate in 2009 and has set a goal of 70 percent for 2015.
  • Profit and purpose connection
    Customers are increasingly looking to buy from companies with a strong sense of corporate responsibility and a solid environmental track record. As more companies see the link between sustainable manufacturing, customer loyalty and profits, the interest in recycled aluminum will continue to rise.
  • Beyond the can
    The aluminum can is often the subject of recycling success stories and statistics, but the recycling rates in the auto and building/construction industries are even higher. More than 90 percent of aluminum used in automotive and construction applications is recycled.

Secondary Production 101

From old to new

The secondary production process begins with extracting used aluminum from waste streams and getting it ready for recycling. Because of the energy savings benefits it provides, aluminum scrap is a most valuable commodity. Scrap segregated by chemical composition, or alloy, maintains the highest value while scrap containing a mix of alloys and other materials has the lowest. New technologies, such as Laser Induce Breakdown Spectroscopy and Color Sorting, can separate aluminum and remove contaminants to improve the quality and value of the scrap. This fine-tuned recycling process allows aluminum cans to be recycled over and over again in a true closed loop process.

Into the furnace

Once the scrap is collected and sorted, it is placed into a melting furnace and turned into molten aluminum at temperatures ranging from 1300 to 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. This molten aluminum may be kept in its liquid state or cast into large slabs called ingots or billets. In some cases, alloying elements are added to the liquid aluminum in order to produce the desired metal for a specific product type. Aluminum ingots may be rolled back into a sheet product (like can or auto body sheet) while billets can be extruded into a shaped product, such as window frames or an Apple computer case.

Infinite possibilities

Additional metals and compounds are often added during the secondary production process to achieve the right alloy “recipe” for the finished product. High performing products such as building materials or automotive parts can be recycled from other high quality aluminum products, such as aircraft components. And since aluminum never loses its performance or strength during the recycling process, the same piece of aluminum can enter the secondary production process time and time again, multiplying the cost savings and environmental benefits.

A Wasted Opportunity?

Americans throw away close to $1 billion worth of aluminum cans each year. These cans, which end up in landfills, could have been recycled back into aluminum can sheet or into other value-added products. This waste reflects a loss to both the environment and the economy. The aluminum industry works hard to encourage consumer recycling by educating the public and advocating for the expansion of municipal recycling programs.

Recycling aluminum saves more than 90 percent of the energy needed to make new aluminum.

Recycling aluminum saves more than 90 percent of the energy that would be needed to create a comparable amount of the metal from raw materials. Tossing away an aluminum can wastes as much energy as pouring out half of that can’s volume of gasoline. Nearly 75 percent of all aluminum produced is still in use today.


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