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 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 other 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.

Mining bauxite in Australia

Mining bauxite in Australia

Aluminum’s Life Cycle

The aluminum-making process begins with the mining of bauxite. We convert the bauxite to aluminum oxide, which is then converted to aluminum. The basic process requires approximately 5.5 metric tons of bauxite to produce two metric tons of aluminum oxide, which, in combination with one-half metric ton of carbon, can produce one metric ton of aluminum metal.

Once produced, aluminum can be used for a wide variety of products. Because it does not rust, decay, or lose its quality, it can be recycled repeatedly without loss of properties. Recycling uses only about 8% of the energy associated with making new aluminum and produces 92% less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, positively impacting the material’s life cycle. (See the Recycling section for additional information.)

In conjunction with the International Aluminium Institute (IAI), we update annually a materials flow analysis to improve understanding of global and regional aluminum production, aluminum flows and inventories in customer and consumer products, and recycling loops. Statistical data entered into the model suggest that almost 75% of primary aluminum ever produced is still in productive use in transport, packaging, buildings, and other applications. For a more in-depth discussion, please read "Modeling More Sustainable Aluminum."

Global Aluminum Flow in 2012
Global Aluminum Flow in 2012

Source: International Aluminium Institute

Click image to enlarge


We have continued working with IAI, regional associates, Yale University, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology to better understand current and future aluminum industry mass flows and ecological implications.

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.

Product Design

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

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

For example, we developed a 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 wheel lines, 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 have found through a peer-reviewed, ISO-compliant comparative life cycle assessment 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.


Our recycling center in Barberton, Ohio, USA, is recycling more than 45,000 metric tons of scrap each year from the global flow path that manufactures our forged aluminum wheels. (See the Energy section for additional information.)

As a member of the Sustainable Development Charter of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), we have worked with other members to increase awareness of the importance of sustainability in the transportation sector and share best practices. We are also an active participant in the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, which has done a number of studies to see how technology and innovation can impact fuel economy and GHGs.


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 are 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 pilot 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. The center’s mission is 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 collaborates annually with the IAI 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, including North America, Europe, and South America, are also updated as a basis for life cycle assessments we conduct for aluminum products.

We also worked with the Aluminum Association during 2013 to complete a multi-year life cycle inventory of North American aluminum production and semi-fabrication. The data show that energy demand to produce primary aluminum is down more than 25% since 1995, and the industry’s carbon footprint decreased nearly 40% during that same time period.


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 life cycle assessment of the North American beverage can, produced in conjunction with the Aluminum Association, 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 most current North American recycling rate available (2012) is 67%, and we support an aggressive industry goal to reach 75% by 2015.


Carbon Footprint of Recycling Aluminum Beverage Cans
Grams of CO2e
2012 Recycling Rate
 Current Recycling Rate in North America = 67%
Carbon Footprint Life Cycle Assessments

We completed several carbon footprint life cycle assessments in 2012, including one on aluminum plate that we produce in Europe. This assessment highlighted carbon footprint reductions that were a result of our internal process improvements. We used these results in 2013 to provide our business leaders with insight on how process improvements can drive more sustainable products.


Transportation Life Cycle Assessments

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

Transportation Life Cycle Assessments

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 IAI.


Aluminum is being incorporated into many new vehicles to assist the automotive industry in meeting more stringent fuel economy and GHG emissions standards. In early 2014, Ford Motor Company announced that its 2015 Ford F-150 truck will have a body made largely from lightweight aluminum and will weigh 700 pounds less than its steel predecessor.


A 2013 study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory compared a baseline steel Toyota Venza with an aluminum-intensive vehicle (AIV) design. The study found that the AIV design offered a 25% reduction in vehicle weight through the use of 459 kilograms (1,012 pounds) of aluminum. The weight reduction resulted in a 20% reduction in primary energy consumption and a 17% decline in CO2 emissions over the vehicle’s life cycle. Overall, the AIV design showed the best breakeven vehicle mileage for both primary energy consumption (19,000 kilometers/11,800 miles) and climate change (1,000 kilometers/620 miles).


A 2012 environmental impact statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Transportation System 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.


Cradle to Cradle Certification

Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM 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 and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.


We were the first aluminum company to receive Cradle to Cradle Certification from MBDC. We currently hold Silver certification for our primary metal, forged aluminum truck wheels, lithographic sheet, can sheet, aluminum bottle stock, and four product lines from our Kawneer architectural systems business.


These certifications help assure our customers that we are continuing to improve the sustainability of our metal, from initial production through use and recycling.