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The Aluminium Can Story

This is an extract from "Natural Capitalism" by Paul Hawkin and Amory and Hunter Lovins. Well worth reading, optimistic, shows the way ahead.

" A striking study of complexity of industrial metabolism is provided by James Womack and Daniel Jones in their book Lean Thinking where they trace the origins and pathways of English Cola. The can itself is more costly and complicated to manufacture than the beverage. Bauxite is mined in Australia and trucked to a chemical reduction mill where a half-hour process purifies each ton of bauxite into half a ton of aluminium oxide. When enough of that is stockpiled it is loaded onto a giant ore carrier and sent to Sweden or Norway, where hydroelectric dams provide cheap electricity. After a month long journey across two oceans, it usually sits at the smelter for as long as two months.

The smelter takes two hours to turn each half a tonne of aluminium oxide into quarter of a tonne of aluminium metal, in ingot 10 meters long. These cured for two weeks before being shipped to roller mills in Germany or Sweden. There each ingot is heated to nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit and rolled down to a thickness of eighth of an inch. The resulting sheets are wrapped in 10 ton coils and transported to a warehouse, and then to a cold rolling mill in the same or another country where they are rolled tenfold thinner, ready for fabrication. The aluminium is then sent to England, where sheets are punched, formed into cans which are then washed, dried, painted with a base coat, and then painted again with specific product information. The cans are next lacquered, flanged (they are still topless), sprayed inside with a protective coating to prevent cola corroding the can, and inspected.

The cans are palletised and warehoused until needed. They are then shipped to the bottler where they are washed and cleaned once more, then filled with water mixed with flavoured syrup, phosphorus, caffeine, and carbon dioxide gas. The sugar is harvested form beet fields in France and undergoes trucking, milling, refining, and shipping. The phosphorus comes from Idaho, where it is excavated from deep open pit mines - a process that also unearths cadmium and radioactive thorium. Round the clock mining company uses the same amount of electricity as a city of 100,000 people in order to reduce the phosphate to food-grade quality. The caffeine is shipped from chemical manufacturer to the syrup manufacturer in England.

The filled cans are sealed with an aluminium "pop-top" lid at the rate of 1500 cans per minute, then inserted into cardboard cartons printed with matching colour promotional schemes. The cartons are made of forest pulp that may have originated anywhere from Sweden or Siberia to the old growth, virgin forests of British Columbia that are the homes of the grizzly bear, wolverines, otters, and eagles. Palletised again, the cans are shipped to a regional distribution warehouse and shortly thereafter to a supermarket where a typical can is purchased within 3 days. The consumer buys 12 ounces of the phosphate- tinged, caffeine impregnated, and caramel flavoured sugar water. Drinking the cola takes a few minutes, throwing the can away can takes a second. In England consumers discard 84% of all cans, which means that the overall rate of aluminium waste, after counting production losses, is 88%. The US still gets three fifths of its aluminium from virgin ore, at twenty times the energy intensity of recycled aluminium, and throws away enough aluminium to replace its entire aircraft fleet every three months."

This information was kindly given to Junkk.com from Dennis Humble from EnviroAbility.

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