Tuesday 9 January 2018

The shiny stuff

For the last 20 years, aluminium has been selling at about $2,000/tonne. That's $2 a kilo: more expensive than potatoes but less than cheese. Of course it is silly to compare retail and wholesale. The price of wheat is about $180/tonne at the farmer's co-op or, more accurately, FOB at the Gulf of Mexico; but I'm paying €1.25 / kg for Strong White Flour in Tesco: a markup / processing cost of about 4x. It's more sensible to compare it to the other widely traded 'base metals':
  • Spot price US$ per tonne
    • Al 2244
    • Cu 7194
    • Pb 2508
    • Ni 12078
    • Sn 19734
    • Zn 3278
Yer standard 12oz = 330ml soda can weighs 15g so you need 67,000 of them to make a tonne: each one contributing about 3c. I often pick up 5c coins from the floor of The Institute which suggests that Millennials won't even bend down, let alone cross the street, for 3c. This played to my PhD mentor's advantage in the 1980s when Massachusetts introduce a 5c levy on soda cans and bottles to encourage people to recycle and reduce the landfill burden. Neil was working for home and on his daily trip to the Post Office would rummage through the trash bins fetching out about $1's worth of aluminium cash-back. Stop press: yesterday, first day back at The Institute, I recovered >! 55c !< from the floor of a student-teeming concourse. It helps that I spend much of the day wandering around looking at the floor and mumbling.

Aluminium is made from dirt and is dirt common - 8% of the earth's crust. Only certain types of bauxite will do but it's essentially dirt nonetheless. I gave an executive summary of the process in 2014. The difference in price between dirt and $2000+ per tonne is the Hall-Héroult process which uses 15,000 kWh per tonne. We pay about 20c / kWh but you can imagine aluminum smelters can negotiate a better deal from their suppliers. Once it's been reduced to bare metal, aluminium can be melted and pressed and hammered and re-purposed more or less indefinitely. As I said on New Year's Day it seems just bonkers to throw it back into landfill for our grandchildren to mine out of the feh of their own fossilised diapers.

As it happens, aluminium was one of the very first items which were conscientiously recycled. Guide Dogs for the Blind is a charity that breeds and trains seeing-eye dogs to enhance the mobility of the visually impaired. The training is nifty: a dog can easily walk under a dangling shop-awning but her owner can't, so the dog must be instructed to be aware of another's troubles - to develop a sense of empathy. In these islands, Guide Dogs have been A Thing since the 1930s but really took off after WWII. Someone had a cunning plan to get kids to gather the aluminium caps from milk-bottles which were delivered in glass bottles to every home back in those days. The bottles were re-used! Rinsed, collected, washed properly, steam sterilised and refilled with the white stuff. If aluminium is made from dirt, glass is more or less made from sand and the cost is in the melting, blowing and marking. This is why reducing glass bottles to cullet then remelting and reforming them is a fabulous waste of energy. Eventually, milk companies realised that they could skip the costly re-use cycle by off-setting the cost of container disposal on the tax-payer.  Tetrapak cost no more [except to the planet] than a multiple use glass bottle and the dairy's washing plant could be sold off for some other purpose.

In 1964, the whole Guide Dog thing took off when the project was flag-shipped by Blue Peter [presenter John Noakes R] the after-school children's TV programme. There were only 2 TV channels then, so it was watch Blue Peter or do your home-work. Kids were told to collect their milk tops and take them to school. Schools warehoused the tops until they had enough to be collected. I can't remember what the figures were but the concerted efforts of  8 million 6-16 y.o. children yielded . . . two guide dogs (Honey and Cindy). The mountains labored and brought forth a mouse indeed.  I know we had a slowly increasing ball of aluminium in the kitchen at home - aluminium kitchen foil was acceptable as well. There were no aluminium drinks cans in 1964 and take-way chicken vindaloo hadn't been invented yet. I've written with nostalgia about the Corona lorry which visited our estate every Summer week in 1963; exchanging an empty [rinsed please] bottle for a full one in a tooth-dissolving variety of colours and flavours.

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