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Aluminium is a metal that is very strong, light and does not rust. This makes it ideal for many uses including parts for cars, planes, rockets, bicycles and for making cans and foil. Like many metals, aluminium does not come out of the ground as a shiny metal, but as a special kind of rock, an ore. Aluminium ore is called bauxite.
It is also quite a valuable metal as it is hard to get the aluminium from the ore. An aluminium can is worth around a penny, which may not sound like much, but in Northern Ireland we throw away over a million pounds worth of aluminium cans every year!
The production of aluminium is very expensive and extremely damaging to the environment. To make aluminium the ore (bauxite) must first be mined. The main sources of bauxite are in Australia, South America and Africa, but other countries including China, Jamaica, India and USA also have large amounts of the ore.
Often areas of forest including rainforest and other important habitats have to be destroyed and cleared to allow the bauxite to be dug up.
Some companies take care to undo the damage caused by mining after they have finished, by replacing the soil and planting it with trees and other plants grown from seeds collected before mining began.
Once it has been mined and cleaned, the bauxite is transported to a factory where it undergoes many processes to produce aluminium metal. These use vast quantities of energy as electricity is needed, and so produces large amounts of pollution. For each tonne of aluminium produced, four tonnes of bauxite is needed. Only now is it ready to be made into products such as drinks cans and foil. Usually, it will be transported again for this to happen, sometimes thousands of miles.
Aluminium cans can be recycled at home using your recycling bin or Kerbie box and can also be taken to recycling banks in Household Recycling Centres, Amenity Sites and some supermarket car parks. Make sure the cans are empty and try to crush them before you send them for recycling.
Foil can be recycled in Kerbie boxes and at Recycling Centres, but it cannot go in the recycling bin. Your Council will be able to tell you exactly where the closest recycling banks are located.
Aluminium can be recycled indefinitely (over and over again), as the recycling process does not affect the quality of the metal. It takes around 6 weeks from the time an aluminium can is put in a recycling bin to be back in a shop filled with new drink. This means that if you put a can in your bin at the start of your summer holidays, by the time you go back to school it will have been recycled into a new can. Just over half of the aluminium used to make drinks cans is currently from recycled cans.
- aluminium cans are separated from steel cans using a magnet. Steel cans stick to the magnet, but aluminium cans don’t. The sorted cans are crushed into blocks and sent to the recycling factory.
- many of the aluminium cans from Northern Ireland go to Novelis Recycling in England to be recycled.
- the cans are melted in a furnace at 660ºC. This is over six times hotter that boiling water!
- aluminium foil is recycled separately to the cans into many things including new foil and car parts.
- uses 95% less energy than it takes to make aluminium from the ore.
- 20 recycled cans can be made using the same energy needed to make a single can from bauxite.
- recycling one can saves enough energy to run a TV set for three hours.
- reduces the need to transport aluminium from distant parts of the world and helps to protect the environment in those countries.
- reduces the amount of carbon dioxide gas released into the air, which is a good thing to do, as carbon dioxide is one of the gases that can cause Climate Change.