Local people could barely have imagined the devastation wrought by a million cubic meters of caustic slurry spewing across the fields and village roads of Ajka in Hungary.
Part of a retaining wall collapsed at a holding reservoir, flooding the surrounding area with so-called red mud. Ten people were killed and 150 more were injured. The environment and livelihoods of the local community were ruined.
Red mud is the residue of alumina refining, the intermittent stage between mining bauxite ore and smelting primary aluminum.
Pollution like this could become more common as carmakers demand greater quantities of this essential metal. The automotive industry already consumes about 18% of all aluminum worldwide, according to the International Aluminum Institute.
“We think the car industry has a vital role to play in driving up standards across the aluminum sector. The transition to electric vehicles means that car manufacturers are forecast to double their aluminum consumption by 2050,” Jim Wormington, the author of a recent report by Human Rights Watch on the risks posed by the aluminum supply chain, told Sustainability InSite.
Despite being easily recycled, more than half the aluminum consumed by the auto industry is primary metal produced from bauxite ore, says the report.
The report urges carmakers to do more to reduce impacts on communities and the environment from their aluminum supply chains. It suggest a range of measure, including integrating binding standards into procurement contracts with direct suppliers.
Aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth and is used to make a vehicle’s motors, chassis and wheels, as well as grease to lubricate parts.
Bauxite is mined on the surface. In Guinea, which has the world’s largest deposits, the government estimates that over the next two decades, mining could eliminate as much as 860 square kilometers of agricultural land and 4,700 sq km of natural habitat, “an area six times larger than New York City,” Wormington said.
Mining bauxite in the first place can pollute surrounding waterways and irrigation systems with sediment, and alumina refining often takes place close by, adding greater risk.
According to Wormington, it is challenging holding mining companies to account as they do not adequately monitor the impact of their activities on local water sources. When he visited an alumina refinery in Guinea, he observed the red mud flowing out of the facility.
Bauxite mining is set to begin in Ghana in protected rainforest. Decades of mining in Australia has spoiled indigenous lands. And Malaysia is likely to reverse its ban on aluminum extraction.
Smelting primary aluminum requires huge amounts of electricity – roughly 17,000 kilowatt hours to produce 1 metric ton. Secondary, or recycled, aluminum uses a tenth of the energy to produce.
In Guinea, as well as China, one of the world’s largest smelters, this electricity is mostly generated by burning coal. Smelters in the Middle East Gulf, which is another major hub, use natural gas. Smelting aluminum contributes about 2% of the world’s greenhouse gases, equivalent to more than 1 billion tons per year of carbon dioxide.
The amount of aluminum in an average American car increased to 211 kilograms in 2020 from 38 kg in 1975. This equates to some 13% of the vehicle’s mass.Ducker Worldwide LLC
Instead of lobbying mining companies and national governments to improve conditions, HRW contacted car companies directly. The thinking being that their purchasing power has greater leverage to pressure mining and refining operators to improve human rights and environmental risks.
“We think that car companies, as they purchase more and more aluminum for electric cars, are going to have a significant influence over the future direction of the aluminum industry. If car companies can require their aluminum suppliers to respect human rights, they can play a vital role in driving up standards,” said Wormington.
Of the 12 car companies HRW approached, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Stellantis (formerly Group PSA), Renault, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo responded. BYD, Hyundai and Tesla did not.
The report found that German car companies were more likely to source their aluminum more carefully. This, HRW thought, was in part due to German law. The country’s supply chain law, passed in June 2020, makes German companies liable for human rights violations by other companies in their supply chains even overseas.
“Many of the world’s leading car companies do have human rights due diligence policies that commit them to identifying and mitigating human rights abuses in their supply chains. However, despite the increasing importance of aluminum to the automobile industry, the human rights impact of aluminum production – and bauxite mining in particular – remains a blind spot,” said Wormington.
The report found that before being approached, none of the companies had mapped out its aluminum supply chain – an essential step in assessing a material’s sustainability.
“Supply chain mapping is hugely important. Unless car companies understand where they are sourcing aluminum from, they can’t know whether they are sourcing from a mine, refinery, or smelter implicated in human rights abuses. Mapping out a supply chain is the key first step in understanding whether you, as a car manufacturer, are contributing to human rights abuses,” Wormington said.
Instead, the priority has so far been on minerals such as cobalt and nickel used in batteries, with several car industry executives underscoring the need for consistency between the transition to environmentally friendly vehicles and responsible sourcing, Wormington explained.
“We want them to apply some of the same techniques they’ve started applying to cobalt sourcing to aluminum, which is a huge part of their future,” he said.
The auto industry is taking some measures to mitigate the social and environmental risks posed by aluminum. One is a certification scheme similar to those associated with cocoa beans and coffee. The scheme is overseen by the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative, which comprises mining, automotive and packaging companies. It certifies mining and refining operations if they meet human rights and environmental targets.
“Our members recognize the importance of continually evaluating supply chain partners to ensure they operate to the highest standards – including as related to human rights and labor practices. They also remain committed to the integrity of their supply chains in producing aluminum for the next generation of cars and trucks to ensure they remain safe and affordable, with the lowest lifecycle carbon emissions of any automotive material,” said Tom Dobbins, president and CEO of the Aluminum Association, in an email to Sustainability InSite.
The report offers guidance on what car companies can do to mitigate the human and environmental damage posed by aluminium extraction.
“They should identify the main human rights risks in their supply chains and be proactive in addressing them. Car companies and their major suppliers should be actively in touch with a coal-fueled smelter in China or mine in Guinea that is taking communities’ land or polluting their water. They should ensure mines address human rights abuses and, if they don’t fix the problem in good time, they should stop sourcing from these mines,” said Wormington.