Aluminum Isn’t the Answer – by Adam Minter (Blomberg View – September 25, 2015)

Some of the world’s top manufacturers have seized upon a simple way to reduce the carbon footprint of their products: Use more aluminum. Ford is now cladding its best-selling F-150 pickup in the lightweight metal to achieve better fuel efficiency; Apple is going a step further and switching to aluminum produced using – among other means – low-carbon hydropower.

Several big aluminum manufacturers are discussing a “green” aluminum certification to encourage such low-carbon manufacturing and charge a premium for it, according to Bloomberg News.

All this is laudable, of course. But it ignores something important. The true test of how “green” a product is can only be decided once it completes its life cycle and the materials used to produce it are recycled or thrown away. Unfortunately, the focus on the front end often obscures what happens to these trucks, mobile phones and even beer cans over the long run.

Apple offers a textbook case. The most interesting feature of its new iPhone 6s isn’t the better selfie camera, 3D touch technology, or even the pink aluminum case. Rather, it’s the 15 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions expected to be produced over the life cycle of the phone compared to the iPhone 6.

Among the ways Apple achieved that feat was by switching to aluminum produced using hydropower, as well reusing scrap metal recovered during the manufacturing process. (Interestingly, according to Apple’s own environmental reports, the new phones are still more carbon-intensive over their lifecycle than earlier models such as the iPhone 4s, with production accounting for much of the growth.)

The question is what happens to these “greener” phones once they’re no longer wanted. Despite Apple’s highly touted promises to recycle your iPhone, real-world recyclers have found previous models fiendishly difficult to disassemble (notoriously, the iPhone uses exotic pentalobe screws).

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