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Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust. Nowadays, it is almost present in our everyday lives, from the containers of our beverages to the wrapping of our food. How is it mined, extracted, and processed? Does it have a negative impact on our bodies and the environment? Joining Corinna Bellizzi is Dr. Saleem H. Ali, who talks about how aluminum production directly affects the food industry and public health. He explains how to keep the process of extracting and utilizing aluminum safe and secure for everyone, further expanding its potential for better application in the future. Dr. Saleem also discusses how humanity must learn to shift from mitigation to adaptation as the planet continues to deal with climate change and pursue industrial sustainability.
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About Saleem H. Ali
Saleem H. Ali was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts (USA) but grew up in Lahore, Pakistan until his college years, receiving his Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Tufts University, and his Masters and Ph.D. degrees in environmental policy and planning at Yale and MIT, respectively.
He is Chair of the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences and the Blue & Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA). He is also a member of the United Nations International Resource Panel. Before embarking on an academic career, Prof. Ali worked as an environmental health and safety professional at General Electric Corporation.
His laurels include being a National Geographic Explorer, with field experience in more than 160 countries and all continents; being selected as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum and serving on the boards of notable non-profit charitable organizations including RESOLVE, Adventure Scientists and Mediators Beyond Borders International.
His books include Soil to Foil: Aluminum and the Quest for Industrial Sustainability (Columbia University Press) Earthly Order: How Natural Laws Define Human Life (Oxford Univ. Press) and Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale Univ. Press). Dr. Ali is a citizen of the United States of America by birth; Pakistan by parental lineage; and Australian by naturalization.
Guest LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/saleemhassanali
Guest Website: http://www.saleemali.net
Guest Social: https://www.instagram.com/saleemhali
00:00 – Introduction
05:57 – Soil to Foil
11:43 – Extracting aluminum
15:47 – Recycling efforts
25:14 – Aluminum coating
32:41 – Aluminum, Alzheimer’s, and cooking
40:02 – Next potential usage of aluminum
43:34 – Avoiding the many perils of aluminum
47:43 – Red mud and deep sea mining
51:48 – Saving the environment from degradation
01:01:49 – UN SDGs
01:06:45 – Closing Words
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Understanding Aluminum And Achieving Industrial Sustainability With Dr. Saleem H. Ali
In this world, we are confronted with so very much that we have to contend with in the day-to-day. One of those things really has to do with the fact that so many of our world’s natural resources have been harnessed to make our lives easier and more convenient. Can you imagine the day before you had your computer or a smartphone? It wasn’t always that way. Not too long ago, we developed these technologies. Have you ever thought about what life would be like if we didn’t have metal?
Having explored the cultures of prehistoric Europe with a background in archeology, I’ve thought about this quite a lot. I even dug a site that predated the Stone Age in France in the North of Paris, a tiny town called Lézignan-la-Cèbe. While there, as I dug in the dirt and found stone tools, I also learned that there was another site down the way from the Iron Age.
Seeing the juxtaposition of people and their remains and a period that was not too far removed from one another and yet the dramatic shift that they saw in their culture was nothing short of astounding. I felt so honored to be able to experience these things firsthand and see a snapshot of what life would’ve been like before we really had any technology, let’s say a stone tool, perhaps a spear, or an arrow.
As we think about the Modern Age, the moments of technological leaps that have changed everything about the way that we live and learning to extract things like metals from our environment, precious stones and gems that get used in our technology, and the wonder of Silicon, which the Silicon Valley is named for, I’ve often wondered about what it takes to do all of this and how we got to this point. I wonder how have we managed these resources, and if we could have been doing it better along the way. How do we do this modern living mindfully? What are the consequences of doing things like strip mining or mining our soil and our stone? What are the potential benefits and what could they land us in?
I’m thrilled to have a partner for this discussion and a really great example to learn from, too, as we talk about soil to foil. This is an awe book written by Saleem Ali. He is an academic, a professor, and a PhD. This book, Soil to Foil: Aluminum and the Quest for Industrial Sustainability, caused me to reflect so much on what I thought I knew about aluminum.
Let me tell you a bit about Saleem. Saleem H. Ali is an academic who earned his Master’s and PhD in Environmental Policy and Planning from Yale and MIT, respectively. His undergrad was at Tufts University. He’s been to the gamut of these Ivy League schools. He’s the Chair of the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences and the Blue & Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware.
While he has a very impressive academic pedigree, he also shows great care for our future through the work that he does outside of his academic work with not-for-profits, a past with the UN, National Geographic, and the World Economic Forum. He has authored many articles and two other books, Earthly Order: How Natural Laws Define Human Life and Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future. He’s truly a world citizen, having been born in the US, having spent much of his youth in Pakistan with his parents, and also becoming a naturalized citizen of Australia. I’m so honored to have him here, so let me bring him up to the stage. Dr. Ali, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to join you and your audience.
I got really excited when your PR agent reached out to me about this book, Soil to Foil, because I have often been an advocate for the use of aluminum as an alternative packaging in the world I work, which is in the natural products industry. Many supplement companies go straight to the Boston round plastic. They’re like, “Let’s put it out in plastic. Glass is expensive. It’s breakable. Why haven’t we thought of aluminum?” The things that come up as I have confronted have been like, “What about the coatings in the aluminum? How is it when it comes to environmental impact? Are we sure it would be recycled?” A lot of this is answered in your book.
Before we dive into that depth of conversation, I would love to learn a little bit more about what inspired you to write it, the 160 countries that you’ve visited in your time on this planet, and perhaps how some of that influenced the work. I’m going to offer you the floor to talk about that because this book is one part history, one part chemistry, and a lot more, too. I know that even though it’s only 250 pages, it’s 250 pages of a story. It’s a story and it’s technology. It’s so much.
Thank you. I really appreciate your interest. My journey has been through chemistry. In terms of my first degree, it was in Chemistry. I’ve always been interested in the elements of the Earth. The periodic table has always fascinated me. That’s how I started my intellectual journey in college. In terms of my temperament, I’m much more of an extrovert. I love meeting people, traveling, and so on. I didn’t see myself, in terms of my career, spending time in a lab or doing experimental work in chemistry. I ended up doing graduate study in Environmental Studies, Environmental Planning.
This book has been a way for me to connect back to the elements while still retaining that panoramic view that informs much of my environmental science work. The journey started partly because the publisher, Columbia University Press, had expressed an interest in a book that would be a deep dive into one element.
The editor at the press had read some of my earlier works, particularly Treasures of the Earth, which was a book about our relationships with minerals more generally. It was a book about wants and needs for minerals. The editor asked me to think about one element where I would do a deep dive. I thought about what other books had been written and what other elements had been explored. There are books on uranium. There are lots on gold, diamonds, and carbon, but on aluminum, very few books do this kind of general audience coverage of the metal and how it is so interwoven with our lives.
There was one earlier book by an academic, which was titled Aluminum Dreams, Mimi Sheller. That book was much more a critique of the whole aluminum industry. It is a very good book, but it didn’t provide the kind of industrial context of contemporary aluminum products that we might want to think about and how we should plan for the future in that regard. That’s where I decided to focus on aluminum.
This book has been that personal journey as well as an intellectual journey, trying to think through our relationship to the element. My travels have informed it because whenever I am overseas, I often think about at every point, aluminum is with us. The airplanes we travel in are largely made of aluminum. Even the new ones with carbon fiber still have a lot of aluminum as well as the computers we are using and so many of the consumer products we use like beverage cans and foil itself. It is ubiquitous, the most widely used metal.
It’s also a metal, which until many years ago, was very difficult to harness. It presents this unusual combination of something that’s very common in the Earth’s crust. It’s the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, but it was so difficult to extract it because of its chemical properties that we weren’t really able to fully utilize its chemistry. Once we figured out one issue or one puzzle of how to extract it with economic efficiency, it opened a whole world of products for us.
I have a bottle that I helped to develop, which is Örlö’s immunity spray. It’s coated because they all are. This is food grade. You have something produced like this for a spray bottle as opposed to plastic. They’re even doing shampoo and conditioner bottles like this. I’m thinking about tea jars or things along those lines, ways that aluminum can be used with one of the arguments for its use being its imminent recyclability. To your point, it’s expensive, uses chemicals to extract, and has impacts on the environment.
Can you talk about what the present state is? While we could enjoy a history of what it takes to get out of the soil, where we are is more practical. We can always point people to the book for that. How difficult is this to extract? What sorts of waste does that create, and how do we handle that? Also, I’d like to take from that perspective and segue to talk about recyclability and perhaps how we could ensure that we develop a more circular path for aluminum so that it ends up in circulation longer and is not wasted.
Yes, certainly. Aluminum is largely extracted from its primary, which we call bauxite. Bauxite occurs in many parts of the world, but for economically viable extraction, it’s available in some very particular deposits. The world’s largest bauxite reserves are in the African country of Guinea. Geologists use the term reserve, which is what is economically viable to extract versus resource. It is what’s out there, but might not necessarily be viable to extract from an economic perspective.
Guinea, unusually, is a country that has an enormous reserve of bauxite. Australia has very large reserves. The Caribbean historically had very large reserves of bauxite. These are accidents of geology where these minerals occur, which is one of the other fascinating aspects of looking at the extractive industries. Unlike a factory, which you can put anywhere, a mine can’t be put anywhere. You need to think about exactly where the deposits are.
The reason why it took us so long to extract aluminum is because it forms very strong bonds with oxygen and it’s really hard to get the metal out. Aluminum metal does not exist in nature on its own. It’s always combined with other elements unlike copper, for example. You can have native copper. The upper peninsula of Michigan had actual curtains of copper.
They called it vein.
Exactly. You could get the metal. With gold, you also have that on its own. You do not have that with aluminum. That means you need a lot of energy to extract it, and you need certain other catalysts that will assist the process. One of those catalysts is what allowed us to upscale. That was this mineral called cryolite. Once it was discovered by an undergraduate student at Oberlin College in Ohio, which is also a great story on its own, that transformed the whole aluminum industry.
Aluminum is mined in many parts of the world. There is a much greater emphasis on recycling because it’s also economically viable to recycle aluminum given the fact that the energy cost is so high for the smelting of bauxite. We’ve got a lot of recycling efforts underway across the aluminum industry as well, but still, mining does dominate all over the world. China and Russia also have a major role in the aluminum industry in terms of extraction and refining. That has complicated the geopolitics of the metal. It is a fascinating metal in terms of its availability and the ways in which it can, down the road, contribute to a circular economy.
The last statistics I looked at said that something like 70% of aluminum in circulation was getting recycled, but in your book, I learned that it was closer to 50%. When we compare it to things like tin cans or other sorts of metal cans, they have higher recycling. Batteries were at the top of the list, so things like your car battery. If I return my car battery, I get $15 back. That’s what incentivizes the consumer to not dump it.
We don’t have a viable incentive program in place for things like the aluminum products that we produce in the day-to-day anymore. In California, it’s done by weight. Aluminum is pretty light. Most of the can recycling gets done either by people at home or from homeless people who still do go and source it and turn it into a recycling center. With a payout no longer being $0.5 a can, it means that’s also dipped. What ideas do you have for how we can improve recycling participation specifically as it relates to aluminum?
With any recycling program, the challenge is one of dispersion or what we may say entropy of the waste if you were thinking in physical terms, and then also the modularity of the product and how easily you can extract it from an existing product. With aluminum, some of these products like cans are all in one place. The aluminum is right there, so you can recycle them very easily. If you have aluminum in a computer laptop, it’s more challenging because you have to detach it. You need someone to take out the material. It’s more labor intensive.If you have aluminum in a computer, it is more challenging to detach and recycle. You need someone else’s help to take out the material. Click To Tweet
This is the challenge with aluminum. You have such a vast amount of products and you’ve got a lot of dispersion. Foil itself, which is the title of the book, is recyclable, but how many of your sandwich wrapper foils get thrown in the trash? It’s very rare that people are going to recycle foil that they’re using for their sandwiches.
They get rules, too. It varies by municipality. In my municipality, I’m supposed to compact the aluminum as much as possible and then throw it into the bin. If you’ve got a little bit of foil around your sandwich and you’re out and about and there’s not a recycle bin, what do you do? You pack at home. That’s what I do. I pack at home.
I realized that I’m the rare person who even has gone as far as traveling to a trade show with an empty suitcase to bring back recycling when I knew that the trade show I was going to didn’t support recycling. That’s gotten much better. The landscape for that has gotten much better in the industries as a whole.
However, even going over the hill to San Jose and visiting my in-laws, they took away their recycling bin and said they were throwing everything in the trash can. It’s because the municipality has made the choice to remove the recycling bin, not because they chose to. This is Silicon Valley. I’m like, “They’re taking away your recycling bin?” It’s like, “We’re trying this now. We have the garbage bin and the yard waste. That’s it.”
To learn that we’re having these walkbacks in certain arenas is partly because recycling is difficult and there are a lot of rules. People can’t be bothered to learn them, so they’re throwing things that are not recyclable into the recycle bins. That creates a cost center for the city to have to deal with it. Therefore, in the end, they throw up their arms, and then what do you do?
Single-bin recycling has been a big problem in this regard. The plastics industry has to share some of the blame with it because they’re putting those recycle labels where it appears you can recycle almost any plastic, but in effect, it’s not economically viable to recycle many of those labeled plastics. People throw them all in there, and then the waste companies have to take out all that junk. That has made it very difficult.
Especially with metal recycling, we need to have much more differentiated waste streams and bring back the deposit incentives. That is going to be where we will start getting back and meeting our targets. Maybe with cans, it should be 80% to 90% target. There’s always going to be some leakage in the system, but it should very well be in that space. For the large-scale metal uses of aluminum and aircraft, there is pretty good recycling.
There’s also upcycling versus downcycling. It is where you want to be able to have the aluminum available in at least the same kind of use rather than having to recycle it into a product that is not going to be of the same value and you’ll still need to mine for the others. It’s a very complex question of where we draw the line between having these various recycling programs and having a functional circular economy.
I watched a program years ago. It was put out by How It’s Made on aluminum foil. In that video, they shared that something like 99.9% of recycled aluminum is reusable. There’s very little loss in the recycling of it. I don’t know if that number’s accurate, frankly, and I can’t remember if I came across a statistic like that in your book.
If it is so eminently recyclable and reusable and there’s an economy of scale associated with that, and it’s environmentally expensive to extract the aluminum from bauxite, it makes no sense to me then why we wouldn’t have incentives in place to make sure that we’re utilizing this. It’s 90% more efficient as far as environmental energy is concerned. That’s the statistic I do remember seeing in your book. It is 90% more efficient.
There is no doubt recycling is far more energy efficient. The bigger question is one of getting society to see the value of having a circular economy. There are two parts to it. One is also, we need to reduce consumption. For example, having drinkable water in aluminum cans, even if they’re recyclable, is not a smart thing to do. You want to use your reusable water bottle and fill it with a filtered water spot.
There is somewhere where we need to also think about how consumption has to decline. When we do have to consume and we do need to recycle, then it’s a matter of changing consumer behavior, having product modularity, and ensuring that we have the right infrastructure to be able to capture what might get missed.
Technologies are improving. Norsk Hydro, for example, which is a major company that processes aluminum in Norway, has developed advanced laser techniques to be able to take out aluminum metal from complex waste streams. That has helped them improve their recycling percentage. Technology can certainly help, too.
The only way I get my husband to drink water is really because we have all these soda water in cans available for him. We do refill. We mostly do that, but even though we have a soda stream, and I don’t know if you know what these are, to make soda water, we’ll get to a point where the canister that we have to then replace, which is an exchange replacement at the local chef shop that we do for reducing waste where we exchange the old can and get the new one to refill the CO2, it’s one more thing we have to do. The soda stream sits there not working for six months and we consume the cans.
Even being a dark green person where I’m constantly working on reducing my waste, our soda cans are an arena where we produce more than I would like. That being said, we’re not consuming a lot in other arenas. It is about being mindful and understanding that no person’s going to be perfect. If you can recycle something, please do.
This is a complex question. The other question this leads me though to talk about is this continual use of having to coat aluminum and the health risks that people proclaim are associated with that. For instance, bisphenol F, I believe, is what’s still used, which is what you wrote in your book. That’s the last thing I read. Bisphenol F is less toxic than the A and some other forms. It’s still used. Is there another option for us to coat the aluminum so that it can safely be used for things that humans can consume?
That’s one of the reasons why you have aluminum sodas in bottles. You don’t get hot beverages as much in aluminum also because you have the coating of the plastic. Most people don’t even realize it’s there. All aluminum cans have this very thin plastic coating because otherwise, the aluminum would corrode with the phosphoric acid and other chemicals that are in the soda.
Even the soda water, they do the same thing because it’s the same mass-produced cans, right?
Yeah. That also has carbonic acid in it. We put carbon dioxide and water in that form and acid also. There’s no major disease outbreak from this, so we have to keep things in perspective. It’s not like this is causing huge cancer clusters or anything. There’s no such evidence for that with the use of the cans, but it is an additional material that’s being added.
The use of aluminum in terms of cans is primarily that they’re very light for transport. It’s easy compared to glass, and it’s robust. Those two factors are why it’s used. You reduce the carbon footprint of transport with the weight being less. They’re robust. They don’t break. If you get your product there with glass, you need more packaging. It’s heavy. That’s the real challenge. Then, you have the tetra pack, which is the other option for beverages. Tetra pack also has a thin layer of aluminum in it.
They have aluminum, plastic, and cardboard.
They have plastic, and they have paper. Tetra pack is very important from a public health perspective because it has allowed milk and dairy products to be carried at room temperature in developing countries where refrigeration would not be possible. If you go to a developing country, you do not get milk like you do in US grocery stores in a big jug.
Even in Europe, it’s very common. The first time I really got exposed to the tetra pack for a milk product was in France at that archeology site. They would buy the milk and have it on hand, and not have to worry about whether or not it was going to spoil. We were in what I would call a mobile temporary housing structure to do this archeological dig. Refrigeration is tough. You don’t necessarily have the right kind of electricity. You’re working on a generator or things like this. You’re living in this minimalist way anyway.
We had that kind of milk there, which is a little surprising to me in France. You see that the ubiquity of that style of packaging has come through in a lot of other arenas. People will be most familiar with it from things like coconut milk or oat milk. If you go to Costco and you’re buying oat milk in these six packs, it’s in that style of packaging. They’re also not necessarily as imminently recyclable. In my neck of the woods, they’re not. I would have to pay to ship them in a cube to somewhere else that specializes in handling these materials to recycle them because they’re a multilayer. They have paper, plastic, and aluminum in one.
There’s an environmental effect of this as well. I also connected with another prior guest from Boxed Water Is Better to talk about that very issue because boxed water is better. They made the argument that putting aluminum cans and circulation for water isn’t necessarily great either because there is some environmental damage when they’re left in our oceans because of the bisphenols. I’m like, “Is there nothing that’s safe for us to get behind using?”
At a certain point, we have to say, “This is better than plastic.” We’re finding microplastics everywhere. The fact that it’s so recyclable, that it has economies of scale, that it can be mindfully used, and that it can then become machined aluminum block somewhere that’s then used for something else, it could become the computer skin on your Apple computer eventually if we’re smart about it.
There will be tradeoffs and. With tetra packs, the benefit that it has provided access to nutritional dairy products in countries and communities where they wouldn’t be possible without revision is a huge benefit. It outweighs the potential challenge of recyclability there. PET plastics are very recyclable and light. For certain, that’s why most of the water bottles we get in the world are PET plastic. They do have the advantage of the aluminum being light. They’re robust also and recyclable, too.
There is a trade-off between plastics and aluminum, but then, it’s a matter of whether the plastic is going to be recycled. That’s where the challenge happens with the pollution in the oceans and so on. If we are able to have recoverability of the plastic, then that gets taken care of. There are other carbon factors with that also because plastic requires fossil fuels. The fossil fuel companies will tell you, “You’re sequestering the carbon and the plastic. Once it’s made, it’s not being burned, but it may well be that if it’s not recycled, it’s going to be burned.” It’s very complex.
I discussed this in the book. It’s a complex socioecological system. It’s like a memory form. You put your hand here and something else is going to come up here. It’s very difficult to navigate that. We have metrics. The good news is we have tools like lifecycle analysis. We have very good data acquisition tools which can help us process all that information much better.
I wanted to dive into one of the topics that you feature in your book, and that is Mr. Aluminum. I didn’t know there was a Mr. Aluminum. In your book, he’s talking about things like Alzheimer’s with regard to aluminum. This is something that has come up more as we have an aging population. My in-laws are in their 90s officially. We have people living for a long time. When people live a long time, they develop things like plaques in their soft tissues and even in their brains which can affect their long-term health. What is the connection between aluminum or aluminium as the Brits like to call it and Alzheimer’s?
There’s been a huge amount of writing on the use of aluminum in antiperspirants particularly. One of the original uses of alum, which is one of the salts of aluminum, going back even to the Roman times was as an antiperspirant. There’s been this whole line of research that suggests that because aluminum itself is not metabolized, and this is one of those very unusual features of aluminum, it’s so abundant in the Earth’s crust but no living organism has developed a way to metabolize aluminum. Iron is metabolized. We have iron in our blood, hemoglobin.
We have it in our bones.
Even though aluminum is more abundant than iron in the Earth’s crust, life didn’t evolve to metabolize it. There is a group of scientists who then use that as a way to say, “There must be something wrong with aluminum that it hasn’t been metabolized.” If you look at the toxicology of aluminum, it’s not so simple. It’s not like lead or cadmium. We know very clearly that lead and cadmium get metabolized in a negative way. They mimic molecules that confuse the body, and that’s what causes their toxicity. With aluminum, it passes through generally. There are very few cases where it will mimic some other molecule. If it’s passing through, then it’s probably not that dangerous. That’s why there is so much controversy over it.
There’s one particular British researcher whom you were referring to, Christopher Exley. He’s very well-intentioned and has written a book about what he perceives as serious health issues around aluminum. In terms of the larger consensus literature on this, there may be some concerns, but there isn’t any definitive linkage between the toxicity of aluminum products and linking them to Alzheimer’s. In other cases, he has also linked them to cancer and so on.There is no definitive linkage of toxicity between aluminum products and Alzheimer’s disease. Click To Tweet
The research should continue. With any scientific project, I would never say no. There are so many other carcinogenic compounds in our daily lives that are much more well-known to be carcinogenic like alcohol, for example, which people, for other reasons, are not going to give up. The data on alcohol’s carcinogenicity is very clear. The WHO has also been clear on that point. We have to look at it in that bigger picture.
I am in agreement there. If aluminum doesn’t really interact, then having us use it in something like a can for a beverage, to me, doesn’t sound like it’s the end of the world. There was some background with regard to using heat with aluminum. Things like aluminum cookware, generally speaking, that’s all coated. In your home, knowing what you know, would you use an aluminum pan for cooking?
Yeah. We have used aluminum cans. Growing up in Pakistan, they were very commonly used and they still are. You have doctors who are homeopaths and they’ll say never use aluminum for cooking. Compared to iron, aluminum is not going to give you the benefits that cooking with iron utensils would. You need iron in your body, so if it’s leaching, it’s going to be useful for you down the road to a certain point.
You don’t want to cook in an iron pan every day.
Anything in excess is dangerous. Even water is dangerous in excess. I wouldn’t be worried about cooking in aluminum cookware which has not been coated with any plastics.
You see all sorts of things coating them. They’ll say they’re ceramic, but they also have another layer of something that’s anti-stick. That anti-stick thing could have nanoparticles in it that end up in places you don’t want and that disrupt your hormones.
That’s a different story, the non-stick story. I’m talking about an aluminum pan that will have a natural coating of aluminum oxide. Automatically, it will form that. Sometimes, they have other alloys also which they will include.
Something else you revealed in your book which I did not know was I did not know that tin was its own element. I thought it was an alloy. I thought it was aluminum and something else.
Bronze is the alloy. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin.
The colloquial use of a word like tin can, I don’t even know if most tin cans are made of tin anymore. The imminent recyclability also of tin means that you can put your canned goods in the recycle bin. Even if it’s not aluminum, it’s still going to be recyclable, right?
Absolutely. Most of the tin cans have other metals in them, for sure.
Since you spent so much time looking at how the industry uses aluminum, I wondered if there were specific uses that you thought we should be looking to for aluminum that respects its unique properties. It is the fact that it can withstand heat, it can be stable and solid, it can be machined to be thin enough and malleable like an aluminum foil, and it can package things like foods. What do you see as the next potential usage of aluminum?
In batteries, that would be the really next big thing. For the green energy transition, if we are going to use solar and wind power, we will need huge battery storage capacity. For any kind of electricity delivery, we need baseload power, and we need other additional sources that can provide peak load. The baseload power, wind, and solar can’t provide. You always need to have some battery storage for that as well as for electric cars and so on.
The next big thing will be if we can start making batteries using aluminum. There’s a lot of research going on. I mentioned in the book also some of the research around aluminum batteries. It’s a very abundant metal. We wouldn’t have the kind of problems we have with cobalt and some of these exotic metals which are more difficult to extract and they’re in distant places. That’s going to be the next big thing for aluminum if they can divide batteries.
It’s relatively lightweight for the space it takes up. I could see that being a potential application even in electric cars if we could advance the technology enough. Much of the research for things like battery storage is around things that are going to be heavy, but they’ll be fixed so it won’t matter as much. I’ve seen research into calcium and other minerals that are abundant for that. It’s possible that that will end up being some sort of a combination of technology long-term.
Having sodium instead of lithium and then having aluminum in terms of the electrodes could make things very different. The challenge we have is also that lithium is rare. The lithium-ion battery is the most widely used. The electrodes for that battery are cobalt and graphite, which are also very difficult to extract as well as even to manufacture. You need coal to make graphite if you make it synthetically.
Some of the other kinds of metals are magnesium and nickel. These are very difficult and heavy. Aluminum batteries which combine other materials like ion phosphate, there’s a lot of research going on around that so you have lighter batteries. It is complicated chemistry because you need the battery to have storage capacity. You need it to have discharge that’s going to allow you to be able to charge at rapid speed, and you have the weight problem. All of that has to come together, but there’s a lot of research going on it. It may win a Nobel Prize in physics in the future, or chemistry.
Perhaps some researchers you know will be involved in that. Given that it’s the most abundant metal that we have at our grasp, it’s still hard to extract but imminently recyclable. I wanted to talk about for a minute where we’ve created problems with extraction. You highlight a couple of examples in your book, one of which was in the country of Jamaica with the bauxite mines there and how it impacted their environment.
Another of which was not necessarily in the aluminum space, but equally talking about extraction and how we handle resources between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I’d love for you to talk about some of the perils that we’ve experienced in the past and how we can avoid those in the future, and also in the space where we might have a mine and we want to return the earth to a more natural state after we’re done with it, so to speak, and how we might do that.
The history of mining aluminum especially in the early part of the 20th century is a checkered one. A lot of the aluminum came from the Caribbean and also from parts of Canada. There were also big smelting operations in Canada, particularly because the hydropower was cheap. We have the history of Jamaica, particularly with the aluminum industry there, which has a huge impact on farmland. For communities that were dependent on agriculture, the farmland was destroyed. It was very difficult for any restoration to be done. We have to learn from that. The industry is trying that they have remediation plans when they go into a bauxite mine.
In Australia, there are some very good examples of some of the new bauxite mines, which have had a good relationship with indigenous communities. I mentioned in the book one particular bauxite project that was going to have joint ownership with an Aboriginal community. The tide is turning from that darker history of extraction. That was true of a lot of minerals, but not just minerals. We have terrible examples of colonization which was done for the spice trade, chocolate, cocoa plantation, and sugarcane.
You could create a laundry list.
Exactly. We should learn from that. The industry has come to do so.
That’s fantastic to see. There is an example you include in the book from Jamaica, I believe, where the farmer took some of the soil and sampled it. He wanted to test it to see if it would be good for growing grass to graze his cattle, and the crown took over the land for its mineral rights because of the aluminum present.
As soon as they found out it had a high bauxite content, they seized it.
They were like, “You can’t graze your animals on it. We’re going to take it over because we own the mineral rights.” I want to see all of that go the way in the past. As we know presently, you even have those sorts of issues on indigenous lands in America where they want to put a pipeline through for oil and fracking. Those projects continue to move forward even when the general population doesn’t want them to or even when they are going across tribal lands. It feels like in some cases, it is 2 steps forward and then 2 steps back, but it doesn’t mean we should stop.
There is certain toxic waste that is created through the mining of any of these minerals. There are two major byproducts that come with aluminum processing. There’s the one and a half tons per ton of aluminum that’s processed. It’s one and a half tons of alumina or red mud. This reminded me a lot of some deep diving I did into the world of coal mining with another guest, Isabel Reddy, who wrote the book That We Remember. It was a fictitious depiction of a coal mine disaster that happened when a slurry collapsed and buried a town in Appalachia. There are examples from every type of mining where you can come up with something like this. How hard is it to deal with this red mud? How toxic is it if it’s toxic? What other toxic waste comes up from its mining and processing?
Red mud has a lot of iron in it. That’s one of the reasons it’s red. When you process the aluminum, what’s left often is the iron salts. It’s not toxic in the same way as you would have mercury, lead, cadmium-contaminated, or arsenic-contaminated mines, which are there in many parts of the world. The toxicity is not of that level.
The problem often is that the consistency of the red mud is such that it has to be stored in these dams and impoundments. If there’s excessive rainfall or you have some earthquake, you can have a massive disaster where the red mud will go into the rivers and it will choke out fish. You get a lot of danger. In Hungary, there was a terrible disaster on the Danube where that happened.
That was not that long ago. 2010, is that right?
That’s right. This has happened also with iron ore mines. It’s not just aluminum. In Brazil, we had two terrible disasters with iron ore tailings. That led to over 150 people killed and 500 miles of river areas damaged in terms of agricultural land. Those are the kinds of things we have to be mindful of. There is an effort at the United Nations. There was a global tailings review that was conducted. Tailings are the mine wastes that are often stored in these dams and impoundments. That review was jointly conducted by the industry and the United Nations, They’ve come out with a series of safeguards. Hopefully, those will be implemented to reduce the chances of this.
There is really no way to get there without some form of regulation. When we see more deregulation happening in the United States, I get nervous because when you see things like this, there will be bad actors. When you’re talking about a natural resource that is sold as a commodity like, “Oil is this, and aluminum is that,” a penny saving on a pound is going to be quite something for that company. We need regulations to make sure that bad actors don’t take over in certain arenas. That’s where I am a proponent of regulation.
I know all of these things, even if they are abundant, are limited resources. We only have so much non-arable land to explore. We also know that we need to set aside more land so that it can rest, recover, re-wild sequester carbon, and do all the things that it needs to do for us to have a healthy planet. Many miners have been looking to the deep sea floor for these resources. You do talk about this in Soil to Foil as well. Apparently, you left no stone unturned when it comes to the topic, which I really appreciated.
What are your thoughts, generally speaking, about going to our ocean floors for the mining of minerals, whether they be something like aluminum or even in the case of another exploration? Norway in January of 2023 reported that they found one of the largest stores of chromium in existence and the sea floor that they control is quite possibly worth more than their oil reserves ever have been, which is quite something. We know there’s going to be more continual exploration of our sea floors. How safe is it? How can we make sure that we aren’t thoroughly degrading these other environments that need to also have a level of health to survive and thrive?
Ideally, we would not have to go to the deep sea or underwater generally for resources because it is a less controlled environment than on land. Unfortunately, because of resource scarcity and continuing demand, we have done that with oil and gas particularly where so much of oil and gas is extracted underwater, particularly in Norway.
Why is Norway so rich? It’s because they happen to negotiate the split of what is considered their water versus the UK is directly at the halfway point.
Norway is otherwise considered a very green country on its land because they were able to have a lot of the externalities of its extraction rents offshore. They have a trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, which means that Norway’s entire population in perpetuity is millionaires.
Doctors and people who work at the rental car counter could be earning close to the same amount of money.
That’s right. I would never say blanket, “No, never,” because Norway is an example of how you could benefit a country if you did it in a certain way. There was some harm that came from it, but you have to balance the costs and benefits. With deep sea mining, my interest in this has been because many small island developing states see this as an opportunity for them to have resource rents without having an impact on their land. Many of these are vulnerable countries like Nauru, Tonga, or Kiribati. They may not even be able to have much tourism because of their geography whereas other small island states like Fiji have very robust tourism. There’s disagreement among the small island states about this. Fiji doesn’t want deep sea mining, but you have countries like Tonga and Nauru that have invested in it.
We have an international governance system around deep sea mining, which we do not have for terrestrial mining. For deep sea mining, there’s a UN body called the International Seabed Authority which regulates deep sea mining. We have no active projects. It’s still an exploration phase. There’s a lot of opposition to it. The opposition should focus on science rather than emotions. We have already gone that way once with nuclear power where emotions, unfortunately, led us down a path. It is why we are in the climate predicament partly because we started to downscale nuclear too fast even though the infrastructure was already there. That’s even in your own state in California.
I have read all the controversies around that as well. Not every situation becomes Chernobyl. There are leaks that occur. Fukushima, Japan is an example. You’re able to contain those challenges, adapt the technology, and get better at what you do. If we had remained focused on that over the years, where would we be? Probably more abundant energy without nearly the scale of climate problems that we have.
Exactly. With deep sea mining, I would be cautious, but I wouldn’t say, “No way. Never,” because what’s the alternative? If the nickel demand continues to rise and we do not have nickel recycled in demand as much as we do, then what will happen? We open new nickel mines on land, and where will they be? One of the big nickel mines is in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest nickel producer. That nickel is being processed and the waste is being dumped in the Coral Triangle. It is also the ocean, but it’s a very high biodiversity part of the ocean.
You end up damaging an ecosystem that is critical.
There are trade-offs. There’s no free lunch in the universe. We have to figure out which trade-offs we are willing to take.
This is another argument then for why using aluminum more and investing in its recycling through programs is so key. It is recyclable and reusable without degrading the time. That’s a state for all metals. If we can improve our reuse of it, granted unless it rusts like iron will rust, you need to make sure that it’s taken care of. We can get to a situation where we don’t have to rely so much on the extraction of these resources if we’re able to reuse the resources that we’ve already extracted and process them. It’s so important that we think about these things.
The part that concerns me with our ocean is ocean floor degradation and ecosystem challenges, but also what happens so far as noise. There’s even been conversation around how much noise the whales and the other pinnipeds really take. Whales are not pinnipeds. It’s sea life, so any of the dolphins, orcas, and all of these animals that live on land that communicate via their sound. If you start talking about drilling into the seabed, there’s going to be noise. I’m a scuba diver. I dove into Hawaii when they were practicing some war games. You’d hear these constant beeping deep underwater. It would get to the point where I was annoyed and I only had to spend an hour underwater.
There’s a lot that has to be done on research around these issues, but we’re talking about 10,000 feet under the ocean.
I’m not diving into that, but sound does travel. The human ear can only detect so much, but these sea animals have different organs.
There are plumes that will come out, and all the science needs to be clear on what will be the impact. Also, we have found that marine life is often far more resilient than we had anticipated. They have to endure volcanic eruptions underwater. They have to deal with a lot. Fishing is a far bigger threat, to be honest, than what may happen with deep-sea mining. I feel also oil extraction underwater is far more risky in terms of catastrophic impact, as we saw with the deep water horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. Deep sea mining would not lead to some huge explosion because you’re not mining flammable materials.
You’re talking about solid-state material.
What we are talking about are these polymetallic nodules, which are lying on the sea floor. It’s scooping them up and taking them up. There will be impacts and we have to manage them. Unfortunately, the activism around this has put forward a lot of very misleading information. I see they’re well-intentioned and their heart’s in the right place, but they need a systems view. They have to figure out, “If we don’t do this, what will be the impact?” I’ve said to the industry people that, ultimately, if there’s going to be mining in the deep sea, we have to reduce mining on land. You can’t have both. There has to be international governance to make sure if there is deep sea mining, the total mining extractivism doesn’t increase because that’s the last thing we want.
I 100% agree with that. That’s a good point, too, when you talk about identifying a node that you’re removing. It means breaking it free and bringing it to the surface at that point. It is different than sticking a drill bit deep into the ocean floor and then having a giant spill that impacts all life on the surface. Oil has been a bad actor in many ways.
Gas, too, because the gas is explosive. If methane is released underwater, it can cause a lot of problems as they are greenhouse gas emissions.
I know that this is late in the interview, but I wanted to ask you a final question about your belief behind the UN SDGs. Are we going to be able to deliver on the overall sustainability goals and keep climate collapse from occurring?
Yes. In terms of the SDGs’ overall targets, we are not going to meet all of them, but we are on a good track with some of the SDGs around particular targets. SDG twelve is the one I’m focused on a lot, which is sustainable production and consumption. For example, the reduction of food waste is one which we can meet the target of in my view.
With climate action, we clearly are not going to meet the targets overall. We’ll have to adapt. It’s very clear that we are going to move towards an adaptive approach. Mitigation has to continue, but we cannot plan the future with mitigation as the primary. 90% of climate financing until a few years ago was going for mitigation and only 10% for adaptation. That’s going to change.We cannot plan the future with mitigation alone. It may have been 90% of climate financing until around three or four years ago, but it now leans more towards adaptation. Click To Tweet
Adapting is critical. We have been hit here on the Central Coast of California with fires and floods. I got evacuated from my home because of the fires. I had friends lose their homes and lose everything. I had flooding on my property not once, not twice, but three times in a year. I’m on a hill. I thought I was safe. We never experienced this in the thirteen years I’ve lived here, and then suddenly, it all happened. There’s the amount of water we get in a shorter period of time and how saturated the roads get. I saw even asphalt buckling on the road down from me because the water saturated the soil so much that it lifted up.
That’s exactly the point I raised. This is so close to people. When people say, “We don’t know whether the climate is changing,” that’s fine. Even if you don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change, you are seeing the changes, whatever may be causing them. Let’s figure out how to adapt. Sea level rise, for example, is patently obvious that it’s happening in many places. There’s no denying it. Whether you think it’s a natural process or not, you’ve got to adapt. Miami better adapt. Amsterdam better adapt. You need to manage the retreat.If you don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change, you will still see and experience the changes that cause it. Click To Tweet
Brooklyn was completely flooded.
There should be no controversy about it. That’s what I find so puzzling. It’s not a blue-red issue. Adapting is something you have to figure out.
Helping to change our mindset on that is critical. When you talk about moving from mitigation to adaptation, we’re an adaptable species. That’s what makes us so different from every other animal on this planet. They do adapt, too. I’m not trying to downplay other animals’ ability to adapt to their environments, but we construct homes, power plants, and cell phones. It’s completely different. We should be able to adapt to this, too. I fully am with you.
I want to say how much I appreciate your work. I want to go and read your other books and invite you back to talk about them. I have to say I so appreciate the depth with which you covered this topic. I’m sure I could go back and read it again, cover to the cover, and learn more. I did not feel like I was being dumbed down at all. It’s an academic text, but also so clearly thought out with historical references that help me see from more of a 30,000-foot view what the issues really are.
I have to say. As someone who considers myself a lifelong student, I appreciated that. Thank you for your work. I hope that my audience will pick it up. I’m going to put it on my Amazon store list along with all the other authors I’ve featured so that they can easily find it, too. I encourage everyone to pick up Soil to Foil: Aluminum and the Quest for Industrial Sustainability. Thank you so much for joining me.
Thank you. It has been a real pleasure.
Thank you for nerding out with me. To learn more about Dr. Saleem Ali and his important work exploring how we build more sustainable industries, please visit his website. That’s SaleemAli.net. When you sign up for our newsletter, you will also receive a five-step guide to help you organize your efforts around any activistic approach you might be taking or act as a project management tool. I also include links to different climate action networks so that you can get involved and stay apprised of what’s really happening out there.
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- Saleem H. Ali
- Soil to Foil: Aluminum and the Quest for Industrial Sustainability
- Earthly Order: How Natural Laws Define Human Life
- Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future
- Aluminum Dreams
- Address Plastic Pollution One Boxed Water at a Time with Robert Koenen
- The Unseen Negative Impacts of Coal Mining with Isabel Reddy, Author of That You Remember
- That We Remember
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