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COMMENT: Jury still out on steel vs. aluminum environmental fight


Of all the contemporary rivalries involving the environment—paper vs. plastic, oil vs. coal, wind vs. solar—steel 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 aren’t 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 aluminum’s 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, it’s 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 emissions.

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 industry coverage.

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.

• Aluminum industry 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 weren’t 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 world—more 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 wasn’t 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 business community.

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 isn’t a fixed target, but rather is still being defined and discussed.

But any trial, whether in an actual courtroom or in the court of public opinion, isn’t 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 out—although deliberations are getting a bit testy.

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