In a recently published, 63-page report, Human Rights Watch describes the automotive supply chains that connect car manufacturers to aluminum mines, refineries, and smelters around the world. The report also documents a number of human rights impacts related to aluminum production and processing, from the destruction of ancestral farmland and damage to community water sources caused by mines and refineries to the significant carbon emissions associated with aluminum smelting. In other words: it’s a serious problem.
It’s especially upsetting because aluminum was supposed to be something of an automotive savior. It’s cheap, easily recyclable, relatively plentiful, and lightweight enough to improve performance and fuel efficiency, regardless of whether we’re talking about electric or fossil fuel. It was a big part of the “cleaner air, fewer wars, and a better world” promises that the most passionate EV evangelists made on behalf of electric cars, and feels like a bit of a “gotcha” at the last second. Like, we’ve come to understand that mining for rare earth minerals can be problematic, but we’ve seen companies take steps to address those issues with increased transparency in the way they mine and manage rare minerals. We’ve seen blockchain developers step up, too, to ensure that their supply is sustainably and ethically sourced — but aluminum sees widespread use in almost all modern cars, not just EVs, and feels like a much more “familiar” thing.
“Car manufacturers see aluminum as a critical material for the transition to fuel-efficient vehicles,” says Jim Wormington, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They should use their ever-increasing purchasing power to protect the communities whose land and environments are harmed by the aluminum industry.”
Aluminum is produced from bauxite, a red ore that gives the mines their distinct, Martian-y look. The bauxite is refined into alumina, an intermediate product, before it’s smelted into aluminum. The problem is that, while aluminum is highly recyclable, more than half the aluminum used by the auto industry is primary (“new”) aluminum that’s being produced from bauxite. With so many American communities just dumping the contents of people’s recycling bins into landfills, that factoid is extra maddening — especially because most aluminum producers rely on coal power. Coal is, of course, a high-polluting fuel that’s widely used in China, a nation that dominates global aluminum smelting.
It’s estimated that some 90% of Chinese aluminum was produced with electricity from coal power in 2018 — and the problems aren’t just in China. Kounssa Bailo Barry, a Guinean farmer and activist, claims that a bauxite mine owned by a joint venture of the multinational mining giants Rio Tinto, Alcoa, and Dadco had destroyed 80% of his village’s farmland. “Everything about Fassaly that made it a village is gone, and we don’t benefit from what caused it,” he explains — and there is little reason to doubt him. Barry’s village, along with 12 other communities, are participating in a mediation process with the mining company to find solutions to the harm it has caused, but I expect that to go about as well as it has for the Ecuadoreans who have been suing Chevron for nearly 30 years without making any real headway.
Maybe that’s just me being a pessimist, but it feels like the bad guys usually win this one. For their part, Volkswagen, BMW, and Daimler are encouraging aluminum producers to join ASI — the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative, which uses third-party audits to assess mines, refineries, and smelters against a Performance Standard that includes human rights and environmental factors — and expand the amount of certified, ethically-sourced aluminum made available for purchase.
Or, you know, we could actually recycle some of the aluminum that’s already out there. Call me crazy, right?
Don’t leave me with the last word, though — watch the video below that was put together by Human Rights Watch. It covers some of what we’ve talked about here. Then, if you’re so moved, read the in-depth report in the source links and let us know what you think our odds of getting the car business to clean up its aluminum purchases in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
Aluminum Production vs. Human Rights
Source: Human Rights Watch.