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BUILDING

Today more than 95% of aluminium building products are recycled at the end of their life
July 2010 In the building sector, there are environmental schemes or labels as well as architects or authorities asking for products which contain a high amount of recycled materials, i.e. products with a high recycled material content. It is indeed common belief that products made of recycled materials are more environment-friendly than products made with virgin materials. While such an argument may be valid in relation to the environmental impact of the production phase of some building products, such an indicator appears much less meaningful for the full life cycle assessment of many building products and in particular for metal products. Metal products and in particular aluminium products have already been effectively and efficiently recycled for many decades. The recycling market for aluminium is limited by scrap availability, and not by the limited use of recycled aluminium. Hence, asking for more recycled content in some applications does not increase the production of recycled aluminium but diverts recycled aluminium towards targeted applications to increase their recycled content, creating market distortion and environmental ineffectiveness. Currently, aluminium is recycled wherever it makes most sense environmentally and economically, in most cases through open loop recycling schemes, e.g. aluminium building products being recycled into bicycle frames or automotive engines. Hence, the recycled content indicator is not an appropriate environmental indicator for metal products. As clearly stated in the common declaration on recycling principles1, the metal industry considers the end-of life recycling rate as environmentally much more significant since it is a life cycle based indicator that promotes metal conservation. A study by Delft University2 showed that demolishers accurately inventory metal products, especially aluminium products, in order to collect them separately and to assess their payback from this scraps economic value. This study showed that more than 95% of the end-of-life aluminium products from the various analysed demolition sites are collected for recycling. Today, it is calculated that more than 70% of all the aluminium ever produced is still in use! The building sector is obviously a big user of this material bank.

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Declaration by Metal Industry on Recycling Principles, Int J LCA 2006 Collection of Aluminium from Buildings in Europe, study made by Delft University, EAA 2004

BUILDING

The recycled content is not a meaningful environmental indicator for aluminium The recycled content approach is mainly useful for materials where the energy and cost saved by recycling are relatively small compared to those of primary production. In practice, this means that these materials would otherwise be incinerated or landfilled as waste. In this case, promoting the recycled content has an environmental meaning since it stimulates a market for recycled materials that is otherwise limited, uneconomic or immature. This approach does not apply to aluminium for which recycling technologies and markets are mature and profitable as reflected by the high value of aluminium scrap. There are no environmental benefits to directing recycled aluminium towards targeted market applications and thereby creating market distortions and environmental inefficiencies.

The end-of-life recycling rate is a much more meaningful environmental indicator for aluminium
The end-of-life recycling (EoL) approach is based on product life cycle and considers the fate of products after their use stage and the resulting material output flows. This approach supports life-cycle thinking, which is the backbone of the European legislative initiatives under the integrated product policy (IPP) and the sustainable consumption and production (SCP) action plan. The EoL approach encourages manufacturers, policy-makers and other decision-makers to evaluate real performance and to improve the design and management of products, including their disposal and recycling. This forward-looking perspective reflects requirements of EU product related legislation and supports sustainable development. Since aluminium is not consumed or altered during the use phase, the end of life recycling approach stimulates metal conservation by optimised collection schemes and recycling technologies. It also encourages product design for recycling, reducing to the minimum the material losses during the various phases of the life cycle. Since aluminium is recycled without alteration of its inherent properties, maximising the endof-life recycling rate is the best approach to minimising the demand for primary aluminium and improving the security of supply in raw materials. The end-of-life recycling rate is defined as the mass of aluminium which is actually recycled, and integrates the losses occurring at the following phases: collection, scrap preparation, melting and refining. For Europe, the average end-of-life recycling rates for aluminium in the building sector can be estimated to be between 90 and 95%, depending on the product type. For environmental studies addressing specific aluminium products, it is highly recommended to analyse in detail the recycling system for these particular products (please contact EAA for more information).