Of all the contemporary
rivalries involving the environmentpaper vs. plastic, oil
vs. coal, wind vs. solarsteel vs. aluminum might end up
among the most important. It certainly is emerging as one of
the most hard fought in the court of public and industry
opinion. Not to mention that it consistently draws response
when we address the topic, as in the story on page 30.
We obviously arent going
to wade into the argument over which side is correct, or even
more correct, for the simple reason that not enough evidence is
in and all of the goals remain unclear.
After laying out aluminums
case in the February magazine, this month we put the spotlight
on steel. Why do we keep addressing such a contentious and
amorphous issue? Because for the overall future of the metals
industry, the U.S. economy and the global environment,
its good news that this battle is taking place.
In recent years, the steel and
aluminum sectors have embraced materials lifecycle analysis.
They have done so because existing production technology offers
limited opportunities to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases
emitted, which means that producers must focus on indirect
Beyond this, even
next-generation processes will be energy intensive, so industry
emissions will be tied to energy efficiency for the foreseeable
future. Also, steel and aluminum products are already among the
most recycled materials in the economy, which means that
despite an energy-intensive first-production footprint, the
more often the materials are reused the lower the net lifecycle
emissions per use.
Finally, steel and aluminum
products are going to play major roles in the automotive and
energy sectors, to name just two big components, and so
covering the direction and competition that this issue
engenders is going to be an ongoing part of our news and other
To give a sense of just how
complex, and contentious, this fight is, just look at a few
examples from AMM over the past year of arguments by
experts and industry players:
Earlier this year,
aluminum industry executives claimed a threefold fuel economy
benefit with aluminum vs. even high-strength steels. Steel
industry executives countered that fuel economy improvements
are directly proportional to the mass saved, arguing that
lightweighting with steel is similar to aluminum but usually at
a much lower cost and with fewer carbon dioxide emissions. Then
aluminum requestioned those assertions.
advocates argued that steel can pick up residuals each time the
product is recycled. The steel industry countered by saying
that all steels are alloys, meaning they are made of multiple
elements and that all grades of steel have specific
chemistries. Steel enjoys open-loop recycling in which any
end-of-life products can be used to make another steel product,
they said, pointing out that certain aluminum grades must be
segregated and recycled into like products. Then aluminum
representatives stated that all of those assertions
werent wholly true.
A consultant to the
aluminum industry said it was exceedingly difficult to take
steel scrap and recycle it as easily as aluminum. The steel
industry shot back, arguing that steel is the most recycled
material in the worldmore than aluminum, paper and
plastic combined. The average recycling rate of automobiles in
North America is around 100 percent, defined by the tons of
steel reclaimed by recycling vehicles vs. the new steel used to
make vehicles each year, they said. The entire process of
dismantling and recycling vehicles is based on the inherent
recyclability of steel. Predictably, aluminum experts said that
while much of this was true, it wasnt the entire story,
and they still believe their metal is the better choice.
And so the arguments go back and
forth. At this juncture, the debates are less about who can
empirically claim victory and more clearly are attempts to sway
important constituencies: the public, the government, the
But the truth is, right now
there is no Platonic ideal of sustainability, efficiency or
other "green" targets for either side to be stacked up against.
The movement to a cleaner and greener economy and world
isnt a fixed target, but rather is still being defined
But any trial, whether in an
actual courtroom or in the court of public opinion, isnt
decided on fact and evidence alone; it is decided on the
comprehension and interpretation of fact and evidence. So it
will be in this battle.
In the case of steel vs.
aluminum, the jury is still outalthough deliberations are
getting a bit testy.