The new F-150 boasts much higher fuel efficiency.

Photographer: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Aluminum Isn't the Answer

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Some of the world’s top manufacturers have seized upon a simple way to reduce the carbon footprint of their products: Use more aluminum. Ford is now cladding its best-selling F-150 pickup in the lightweight metal to achieve better fuel efficiency; Apple is going a step further and switching to aluminum produced using – among other means - low-carbon hydropower. Several big aluminum manufacturers are discussing a “green” aluminum certification to encourage such low-carbon manufacturing and charge a premium for it, according to Bloomberg News.

All this is laudable, of course. But it ignores something important. The true test of how "green" a product is can only be decided once it completes its life cycle and the materials used to produce it are recycled or thrown away. Unfortunately, the focus on the front end often obscures what happens to these trucks, mobile phones and even beer cans over the long run.

Apple offers a textbook case. The most interesting feature of its new iPhone 6s isn’t the better selfie camera, 3D touch technology, or even the pink aluminum case. Rather, it’s the 15 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions expected to be produced over the life cycle of the phone compared to the iPhone 6. Among the ways Apple achieved that feat was by switching to aluminum produced using hydropower, as well reusing scrap metal recovered during the manufacturing process. (Interestingly, according to Apple’s own environmental reports, the new phones are still more carbon-intensive over their lifecycle than earlier models such as the iPhone 4s, with production accounting for much of the growth.)

The question is what happens to these "greener" phones once they're no longer wanted. Despite Apple’s highly touted promises to recycle your iPhone, real-world recyclers have found previous models fiendishly difficult to disassemble (notoriously, the iPhone uses exotic pentalobe screws). Apple hasn't made that task any easier. Meanwhile, the standard method for recycling electronic devices -- shredding them into tiny pieces and then using magnets and other methods to separate out the recyclable materials -- can leave behind as much as 30 percent mixed wastes or more, depending on the device. Included in that mixed waste will be aluminum and other recyclable materials that – theoretically, at least – could be replacing virgin materials, at a significant carbon savings (recycled aluminum can offer as much as a 92 percent energy savings compared to virgin aluminum).

Similarly, the new, lighter Ford F-150 boasts much better fuel economy than previous models. But in terms of how complex it is to recycle, the truck makes the iPhone look like a beer can. The problem is that the F-150 uses two different aluminum alloys and joins them together – and to the steel frame – using steel and other fasteners. The result is a mix of metals that’s difficult – if not impossible – for recyclers to separate economically. As a result, these permanently-fused aluminum alloys can only be “down-cycled” into lower quality, less useful grades of aluminum, and not separated and recycled into their component parts. Over the long run, that doesn't represent a great carbon savings.

What would it take to get companies to address the back end of the product life cycle more seriously? One idea might be to require them to disclose just how much of a product is actually recyclable in practice (and not just say that it can be recycled). That shouldn't be a problem for a company like Apple, which partners with some of the world’s most advanced electronics recyclers. The company would simply need to run phones through the recycling process and measure how much of the end product actually can be reused. Instead of having a label that says “made from low-carbon aluminum,” or “recyclable,” the company could say something like, “70 percent of this product will make other products.”

In doing so, Apple could challenge competitors to best its numbers, akin to the competition among food producers to tout their low-calorie offerings. Such a labeling system wouldn’t work for every product type: Automobile recycling facilities, for instance, are too variable in their methods and operations to serve as benchmarks. But it should work with enough of them to start a conversation about what really makes a green product, and what's hype.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net