Aluminum Cradle-to-Cradle Loop
Aluminum cradle-to-cradle
Cradle to Cradle certification logo
Aluminum, Our Miracle Metal
Aluminum, Our Miracle Metal
Play Video
It All Starts with Dirt
It All Starts with Dirt
Play Video
Alcoa Recycling
Alcoa recycling

Play Video


Designing for Sustainability

Societies around the world now expect products that create less waste, consume fewer natural resources, and use energy efficiently.


We believe life cycle analysis is the best way to measure the environmental sustainability of our products. We conduct these analyses so that our customers and external stakeholders have a holistic view of the impacts and benefits associated with using our aluminum.


The inherent qualities of aluminum—high strength, light weight, durability, and infinite recyclability—make it one of the world’s most sustainable materials. These qualities, and our pursuit of sustainable production, enable our customers to make innovative, efficient, and responsible products with Alcoa aluminum.


In 2010, we received Cradle to Cradle® Certification for our primary aluminum because of improvements in our production process—reducing energy use, deploying efficient water management systems, utilizing renewable energy, and recycling. This certification is a third-party assurance to customers and external stakeholders that we are committed to improving the sustainability of our metal.

Tennessee Can Reclamation

Alcoa operates the largest can reclamation facility in the world in Alcoa, Tennessee, in the United States. This facility re-melts enough used beverage containers to make billions of new aluminum cans each year.

Aluminum’s recyclability has a significant impact on its life cycle. Recycling uses only 5% of the energy associated with producing new aluminum and produces 95% less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.


Our clear understanding of aluminum’s life cycle allows us to strategically develop products and processes that increase both the amount of aluminum used worldwide and the amount that is recycled once a product reaches the end of its useful life. Approximately 75% of all the primary aluminum ever produced since 1888 is still in use today.


Product Design

We believe world markets increasingly should, and will, demand sustainable products as defined by cradle-to-cradle design philosophy.


We are utilizing life cycle assessment, design for manufacturability/disassembly software, and other sustainability tools to conceive, develop, and bring to market sustainable products in each of our major market segments: transportationpackagingbuilding and construction, and industrial and engineered products.


In 2012, for example, we introduced a new line of forged truck wheels in Europe to improve the fuel efficiency of commercial fleets. These wheels are up to 44% lighter than steel equivalents and support the move to higher-load-capacity tires. Of the four new wheel lines released, two offer maximum loads per wheel currently unavailable in steel. These European wheels expand our global portfolio beyond the current line of lightweight forged wheels, which includes the LVL One wheel in North America.


We also released the results of a comparative life cycle assessment that highlighted the benefits of our forged aluminum truck wheels over their high-strength steel counterparts. The peer-reviewed, ISO-compliant study found that converting one commercial truck from high-strength steel wheels to aluminum wheels can reduce the vehicle’s carbon footprint by 16.3 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) in North America and 13.3 metric tons of CO2e in Europe over the vehicle’s lifetime.


The following graph shows the relative benefits of Alcoa forged aluminum wheels in the North American region. For each life cycle phase, the number represents the total difference in global warming potential when compared to the steel baseline.


Alcoa Aluminum Truck Wheels versus Steel Wheels in North America
Metric tons of CO2e

Positive numbers imply that aluminum is worse for that particular phase, while negative numbers imply a net benefit of aluminum versus steel.


In October 2012, we opened a recycling center in Barberton, Ohio, USA, that will recycle more than 45,000 metric tons of scrap each year from the global flow path that manufactures our forged aluminum wheels.


We also joined the Sustainable Development Charter of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) in September 2012. We will work with other charter members to increase awareness of the importance of sustainability in the transportation sector and share best practices.


Sustainable Market Development Teams

We have established several sustainable market development teams that assist our business units in determining how they can help customers achieve their sustainability goals. This is done by defining a fact-based value proposition for products based on life cycle, obtaining sustainability product certifications, utilizing design for sustainability competencies, and leading sustainability education for our commercial teams.
A number of teams conducted detailed sustainability assessments in all major market sectors we supply and engaged customers concerning their sustainability priorities. The extensive market and customer feedback guides our product improvements and new product designs and introductions.


Life Cycle Assessment

Life cycle assessments continue to gain increased support as the most appropriate and comprehensive way to evaluate a product’s sustainability.


Measuring a product’s impact in terms of its environmental burdens, the energy and raw materials used to manufacture it, and the benefits associated with its use requires a careful analysis from “cradle to grave” or, more appropriately, “cradle to cradle” when products are recycled or reused at the end of their useful lifetime.


Life cycle assessments and related holistic analyses, such as the European Union’s draft environmental footprint of products methodology, are helping us and the aluminum industry as a whole better understand the metal’s full effects on the environment—from extraction and processing of raw materials through manufacturing, distribution, use, and recycling—as well as the significant benefits that the product provides to customers and downstream users.


Aluminum Cradle-to-Cradle Loop
Aluminum Cradle-to-Cradle Loop


A fair and appropriate life cycle assessment, as specified by the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 14040 (life cycle assessment) series standards, consists of the following four complementary components:

  • Goal and scope definition: Defines the purpose, scope, boundary conditions, and intended applications of a life cycle assessment.
  • Life cycle inventory analysis: Identifies and quantifies energy and raw material requirements, as well as environmental releases attributed to products over their lifetimes.
  • Life cycle impact assessment: Attempts to assess and evaluate the potential effects of environmental releases and resource usage on factors like biodiversity, human health, natural resources, climate change, air quality, and aesthetics.
  • Life cycle improvement assessment: Identifies opportunities to maximize benefits and minimize unwanted environmental burdens and effects.


In response to increasing use of life cycle assessments by regulatory agencies, customers, and external stakeholders, we established an internal Life Cycle Assessment Center of Excellence (LCA COE) in 2010 to enhance awareness and perform assessments of our processes and products in accordance with ISO 14040.


In 2012, the LCA COE continued to evaluate key issues and communicate them to our market representatives, key customers, and our leaders; perform life cycle assessments; lead initiatives; and promote recommended practices. As a result, we are increasingly utilizing life cycle assessments to guide decisions about improving existing products and processes and developing new ones.


The LCA COE collaborated with the International Aluminium Institute to collect the most recent life cycle data from our primary products locations worldwide. These data have been integrated with data from aluminum companies across the globe to create an updated life cycle inventory dataset for Alcoa and industry average aluminum production. Regionalized datasets (North America, Europe, South America, etc.) are also being updated as a basis for life cycle assessments of Alcoa and aluminum products.

Product and Customer Life Cycle Assessments

Life cycle assessments continue to help us identify where we can save emissions and costs, as well as where our products can drive efficiency and make meaningful overall improvements.


Packaging Life Cycle Assessments

A recent life cycle assessment of the North American beverage can, produced in conjunction with the Aluminum Association, has led to a comprehensive sustainability approach to our can sheet and allowed us to identify specific opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint of aluminum bottles.


The following graph shows how increasing the end-of-life recycling rate can drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the North American beverage can. The current recycling rate is 65% in North America, but we have set a goal to reach 75% by 2015.


Carbon Footprint of Recycling Aluminum Beverage Cans
Grams of CO2e
2011 Recycling Rate....
 Current Recycling Rate in North America = 65%


In 2012, we continued our partnership with Silgan Containers to conduct a full life cycle assessment on the aluminum pet food can. This project demonstrates how we use this tool to collaborate with our customers and build a stronger relationship around mutual sustainability goals.


The Silgan study results are consistent with the North American beverage can life cycle assessment and highlight the carbon reduction and other environmental benefits of recycling aluminum pet food cans at the end of their life.


Carbon Footprint Life Cycle Assessments

In 2012, we completed several carbon footprint life cycle assessments, including an assessment of aluminum plate we produce in Europe. The assessment highlighted carbon footprint reductions that were a result of our internal process improvements.


Transportation Life Cycle Assessments

Life cycle assessments demonstrate that aluminum is a net energy saver when used for automotive components and structures. This is due to its high strength-to-mass ratio, which reduces fuel consumption over the life of a typical automobile.


For example, researchers at Natural Resources CanadaOak Ridge National Laboratory, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and Beijing University of Technology presented a summary of their life cycle assessment studies at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) World Congress in 2010. They compared the energy and environmental impacts of using aluminum, steel, or magnesium-based front-end parts on a General Motors Cadillac CTS. The study was conducted as part of the Magnesium Front End Research and Development Project, an initiative tasked with developing technologies to grow the use of magnesium in automobiles. The study concluded that utilizing aluminum results in lower life cycle energy and GHG emissions than steel or magnesium for all scenarios.


On average across all applications, the International Aluminium Institute life cycle assessment indicates the potential to save 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of carbon dioxide emissions in automotive and light truck applications for every one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of aluminum used to replace higher density steel or iron components. For articulated trucks and city buses, the respective CO2 savings are 28 kilograms (62 pounds) and 45 kilograms (99 pounds).


The use of 7 million tons of aluminum for passenger car components in today’s vehicles instead of heavier materials has the potential to reduce global CO2 emissions by approximately 140 million tons over the life of these vehicles. Additional information can be found in lightweighting studies that are available through the International Aluminium Institute.


Proposed enhancements to fuel economy standards and emerging regulations of vehicle tailpipe GHG emissions are increasing the demand for high mass-to-strength ratio materials like aluminum in the design of vehicles.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Transportation System released an environmental impact statement in 2012. The authors concluded that aluminum substitution is effective at reducing overall life cycle energy use and GHG emissions. In other words, the increased energy use and GHG emissions at the vehicle production stage are offset by use-phase savings over the vehicle life. A similar conclusion was reached in a technical report commissioned by the European Commission in 2011.


In 2012, we completed a life cycle assessment for rolled automotive sheet produced in America. This study helped quantify the potential fuel and emissions savings that could be achieved by integrating aluminum into passenger vehicles.


Standards Development

We favor the use of a standardized approach to life cycle assessment. For general guidelines, ISO 14040 is always utilized and highly valuable. These standards outline the fundamental necessities that must be taken into consideration for any study to be a success. New standards have emerged recently that will help us continue to improve the quality of our analyses and build relationships with relevant stakeholders.


World Resources Institute and World Business Council for Sustainable Development—Product (Carbon Footprint Life Cycle) Accounting and Reporting Standard

These two nongovernmental organizations published their jointly developed Product Life Cycle Accounting and Reporting Standard in October 2011. The final version promotes full cradle-to-cradle carbon footprint assessments, including both the use phase and the end-of-life phase of a product.


Our LCA COE and the International Aluminium Institute have been collaborating at the international and regional levels to contribute their expertise and experience to the development, testing, and finalization of these and other standards, such as ISO 14046 (water footprint) and ISO 14067 (carbon footprint) standards.


Cradle to Cradle Certification

Cradle to Cradle Certification is a multi-attribute eco-label that assesses a product’s safety to humans and potential impact on the natural environment. Unlike single-attribute eco-labels, this independent certification program developed by MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry) takes a comprehensive approach to evaluating the sustainability of a product and the practices employed in manufacturing the product. The materials and manufacturing practices of each product are assessed in five categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy use, water stewardship, and social responsibility.


We are the first aluminum company to receive Cradle to Cradle Certification from MBDC. This helps assure our customers that we are continuing to improve the sustainability of our metal, from initial production through use and then recycling.


In 2012, our forged aluminum truck wheels, which help customers reduce their fuel consumption and GHG emissions, were the latest of our products to receive Cradle to Cradle Certification—Silver. Alcoa’s primary aluminum, lithographic sheet, can sheet, three product lines from our Kawneer business, and the aluminum bottle have also been Cradle to Cradle certified.