Industry structure

In every part of the world, aluminium scrap is collected and melted down to produce new products.

Recycling plays a particular role in the mature markets of Europe, North America and Japan, where there is good availability of scrap from applications at the end of their useful lives.

A fully developed aluminium recycling industry includes both refiners and remelters. Refiners produce casting alloys and deoxidation aluminium from scrap of varying composition; they mix these scrap types together, add alloying elements and remove certain unwanted elements after the melting process to produce alloys to customers specifications. Remelters (of which the primary aluminium industry makes up a significant percentage) produce wrought alloys, usually in the form of extrusion billets and rolling ingots, from mainly clean and sorted wrought alloy scrap. Wrought alloys are also produced using end-of-life scrap, based on established closed-loop recycling systems (e.g. used beverage cans into new cans or window profiles into new window frames).

In 2015, around 27 million tonnes of recycled aluminium are produced annually by refiners and remelters from old and traded new scrap, compared with 58 million tonnes of primary aluminium.

Refiners and remelters play integral roles in aluminium recycling but they, in turn, have crucial links with collectors, dismantlers, metal merchants and scrap processors, which deal with the collection and treatment of scrap. The metal merchants are also responsible for handling most of the foreign trade in scrap.

In Europe and North America, scrap has been generated in sufficient quantities over the past seventy years to develop an economically strong and technically outstanding aluminium recycling industry. Following the oil shocks and energy cost increases of the 1970s, Japan ceased domestic primary aluminium production and switched to aluminium recycling in the 1980s. In addition to these traditional production centres, increasing recycling activities are evident in China, India and Russia.

For most countries, there is a well-established market for recycled aluminium with firmly defined distribution chains. Hence, refiners supply foundries with casting alloys and remelters supply rolling mills and extruders with wrought alloys according to official standards and/or customer specifications.

Since 1980 the aluminium recycling industry has quintupled its annual output of metal from old (post-consumer) and traded new scrap, from 5 million tonnes to almost 25 million tonnes in 2015. Over the same period, annual primary metal production has grown from 15 to 48 million tonnes.