Malaysia’s bauxite boom causes havoc
Bauxite, AKA aluminium ore, is a controversial political issue in Malaysia. The nation’s government has just put a temporary ban in place, halting extraction of the ore until later this summer. The action has been taken to halt the runaway open-cast bauxite mining in Pahang province.
Malaysia’s annual bauxite ore output has shot up from 200,000 tonnes or so in 2013 to almost 20 million tonnes in 2015, making it the world’s top producer. The thing is, bauxite mining is a dirty process and, unless strict environmental controls are in place, it can result in chronic pollution.
An unregulated ‘Gold Rush’ scenario
Malaysia’s obsession with mining the ore is very like a classic, old-school Gold Rush, with 44 different companies acquiring export licences in record time, all rushing to take advantage of any landowner, no matter how small, who was willing to sell their raw ore. The country’s authorities more or less sat back and let it happen, failing to regulate the booming industry. As a result local rivers are running red with heavy metals, arsenic and mercury from the bauxite sediment, homes are smothered in a thick film of red dust, and trees are dying. As one local commentator said, “A handful of people enjoy the profits, but in future many people could suffer.”
A three month moratorium slows things down
The current three month moratorium has seen the open cast mines and stockpiles of raw ore temporarily abandoned. What happens next is unclear. Many local people want bauxite mining to be banned permanently, and there’s only an estimated 10 years’ worth of bauxite reserves left in the area anyway.
Plentiful supplies means recycling isn’t always a priority
More aluminium is produced today than any other non-ferrous metal, and it’s one of the most widely used metals in a huge variety of products, from cars, trucks, buses, trains and aircraft to roofing, wall cladding, windows and doors, aerosols, foil, cartons and electrical products. It’s light, strong, durable, flexible, impermeable, conducts heat and electricity and doesn’t corrode. And it is entirely possible to recycle it. The problem is, worldwide reserves of bauxite are so vast that we could potentially carry on mining for centuries without having to think about recycling.
The good news – IAI on the case
The Aluminium Stewardship Initiative, or ASI, is on a mission to change things. We already know that aluminium comes with environmental benefits. Its light weight helps boost fuel economy, which in turn cuts emissions. And 95% of the metal used in vehicles – including aircraft – can be recycled. In fact the metal’s infinite recycliability means an impressive75% of all the aluminium ever produced is still in use, with no reduction in quality. Better still, the aluminium recycling process only produces 5% greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s fast. Recycle a fizzy drinks can and it can be back on the shelf in another guide – or the same guise – in just six weeks.
The bad news – Unsustainable practices need improving
On the other side of the coin, actually mining the metal comes with significant sustainability challenges, including greenhouse gases, energy use, managing waste products, protecting biodiversity, managing land, and protecting local people’s rights. Because bauxite tends to be found close the the earth’s surface, mines cover huge areas of land. They can threaten protected and conserved areas, and drive significant deforestation. Environmental rehabilitation is key, as is protecting the biodiversity close to refineries, landfill sites and slurry pipes in the first place.
Primary aluminium production processes are worryingly energy intensive, particularly the electricity used for electrolysis and that used to create a workable solution of bauxite in caustic soda. Once alumina is extracted from the ore, the residue goes to landfill. And this is one of the biggest challenges. There’s loads of the stuff, it takes up a lot of space and it’s highly alkaline. All of which means responsible storage and disposal are crucial.
The good news is that aluminium recycling levels are already impressive, and they’re growing. The IAI says end-of-life recycling of aluminium in building and transport already stands at 90%. In the EU aluminium packaging is recycled to the tune of 60% or so and drinks cans at 70%. To improve these rates, better collection and recycling protocols are essential. In Britain many local councils – including Brighton & Hove – don’t collect domestic waste aluminium full stop.
Mining the metal depends on large amounts of land and water being freely available. Sadly this often affects indigenous people, flora and fauna. The IAI believes it’s vital for local people to be given the chance to give free, prior and informed consent – or not – in decisions that affect their land and natural resources.
Let’s get it right…
When it’s done right, mining aluminium can have positive effects, creating employment and generating wealth for local communities. Done wrong it can be catastrophic. As a respected aluminium stockist we like to stay ahead of the game. We support environmentally responsible extractions all the way.
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