ALUMINUM, the Magic Metal – Part Two.


To inspect a bauxite mine, I visited the Caribbean isle of Jamaica. From this small nation, less than half the size of my native Maryland, comes nearly half the 12 to 15 million tons of bauxite that U. S. plants devour each year. U. S. and Canadian refineries on the island process another six million tons into alumina. As a result, Jamaica ranks second only to Australia among exporters of bauxite and alumina.

Raw, red bauxite showed in road cuts and plowed fields as I traveled Jamaica’s tortuous roads toward mines of the Kaiser Bauxite Company, subsidiary of the giant U. S. aluminum and chemical firm. From the crest of each successive ridge I saw another valley emptied of bauxite . Some had been small pockets that yielded a few thousand tons, some huge basins that had disgorged millions. Many mined valleys showed grassy floors—beneficiaries of reclamation laws enforced since the early 1950’s.

American geologists estimate that a billion tons of bauxite still can be scraped from the island’s limestone skeleton. Jamaican estimates are double this, enough for 140 years of mining at the present rate. Prodigious as these amounts are, they pale beside the deposits in Australia and Guinea; together they may possess half of the world’s reserves. They may be rivaled by new discoveries in Brazil, while neighboring Surinam and Guyana have exported bauxite for decades. Indonesia, India, and Cameroon also possess immense deposits.


Europe and North America claim modest (by comparison) amounts of bauxite; Arkansas supplies about 10 percent of U. S. needs. But the great bonanzas lie in tropical and subtropical nations, and for a reason. Torrential rains have leached away other minerals, leaving durable alumina-rich bauxite.

As a result of continuing new bauxite discoveries, estimates of world reserves have risen from a billion tons in 1945 to 25 billion today. (1978) Why, then, do U. S. Government officials worry about shortages? “Look at the new import figures,” advised Ralph C. Kirby, the Bureau of Mines’ assis-tant director for metallurgy. “Those 14 or so million tons of bauxite the U. S. aluminum indus-try imports each year are its life-blood—90 percent of all it uses.

“Now,” he said, holding up a chart of the Atlantic and pointing to a constellation of X’s “look at these merchant-ship sinkings during World War II. In 1942 the German U-boats torpedoed nearly one of every four bauxite carriers coming from South America, striking at our aircraft production. We learned then how vulnerable we are. “Even in peacetime,” Ralph continued, “we’re vulnerable. Most bauxite nations are relatively poor, and they want to process the bauxite to create jobs and capital. But if we had to import only alumina, or worse yet the finished metal, the effect on our balance of payments could be catastrophic. “Further, several of the bauxite countries are taking over operations within their boundaries. Guyana just recently nationalized the substantial Reynolds holdings there. And Jamaica..........


By all accounts the great corporations find a worthy adversary in small Jamaica. In 1974 it hiked taxes fivefold on bauxite, and tied future taxes to U. S. aluminum makers’ prices. Now Jamaica is peaceably but relentlessly hammering out agreements for part ownership of the firms’ investments, totaling nearly a billion dollars. “Also,” admonished Kirby, “don’t forget the IBA.”

Patterning themselves after the oil nations, 11 ore-producing countries have joined hands as the International Bauxite Association. (IBA) The members control 75 percent of all bauxite production—a higher proportion than that of oil that is controlled by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries—OPEC. “They’ve already agreed on a minimum price,” Ralph told me. “There’s no telling what lies ahead.”

To find out, I sought out the secretary-general of IBA in his elegant office in Kingston, Jamaica. Henri A. M. Guda was suave, articulate, and—to a citizen of the world’s biggest bauxite-buying nation—somewhat reassuring. “It only makes sense, of course, to get the most for our resources,” said the tall, slender native of Surinam. “Most of our member nations are capital-shy, and either we ask for hand-outs from Big Brother to the north [the U. S.] or we try to help ourselves. “But we know we can’t price ourselves out of the market. Above all we want to sell bauxite; we don’t want to leave it in the ground.”

In this high-stakes global game, the U. S. is not without a trump card or two. I got a peek at a hand during an extraordinary rendezvous of industry and Government in the desert town of Boulder City, Nevada. Around a long table sat spokesmen for aluminum titans here and abroad—Alcoa, Alcan, Reynolds, Kaiser, Anaconda, Alumax, and others . With them sat representatives of companies that depend on this alumina for making furnace linings and other non-metallic products, and a Bureau of Mines delegation headed by Ralph Kirby.

One by one, Government and industry spokesmen brought their colleagues up-to-date on their work in the desert. They spoke their own language, using terms such as sparging, elutriation, and centrifuge cake. Finally the group adjourned to a nearby building to inspect the apparatus they had been discussing—a complex maze of pipes and tanks called the miniplant. Jointly financed by the bureau and the companies, the miniplant is an experiment in processing domestic, non-bauxitic ores into alumina—making aluminum without bauxite.

“We think we now have the technology to do it,” said Kirby, “and the cost begins to look competitive with bauxite.” In a nearby bin I examined one of the ores on which they pin their hopes—a fine white Georgia clay called kaolin. Mammoth deposits lie a few score feet beneath Georgia’s famous red field clay, in a great arc stretching across the state below the fall line. “We estimate anywhere from one to five billion tons,” Ralph explained. “No one really knows. It averages about 35 percent alumina, two-thirds the richness of typical bauxite. At present rates this is enough to supply the U. S. for decades . Several aluminum companies are buying up land.” Energy requirements, though, would be substantially higher, and many experts fear the impact on the environment.


Georgia kaolin, I learned, represents only a fraction of the nation’s potential ores. Huge reserves of aluminum-rich rock known as alunite and anorthosite lie in Wyoming, Utah, and other parts of the West. Laterite, a low-grade bauxite, occurs in Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. Aluminum lurks in western oil shale and could someday become a petroleum by-product. Even fly ash from the nation’s coal- burn -ing furnaces could become a source of aluminum.

Turning to the business world, I found executives confidently eyeing a tempting market, the voluptuous American auto. I learned the logic of it from one of the aluminum industry’s leading figures, David P. Reynolds, head of the giant Virginia-based firm that bears his family’s name. I felt fortunate to catch him; the next week he would be off to Brazil, looking into bauxite.

The oil crisis of a few years ago,” he explained, “underscored the relationship between weight and energy consumption. It takes energy to move weight; EPA figures show that a 4,200-pound car gets only 17 miles to the gallon compared to 32 miles for a 2,000-pounder. With mileage requirements going up, weight must come down. To us this means more aluminum parts.”


The genial executive strode to shelves crammed with aluminum wares that gave his office the flavor of a retail store. “We’re already producing aluminum parts,” he said, jabbing a finger at assorted bumpers, pistons, grilles, and trim. “This year’s automobiles carry more than a hundred pounds. We think they’ll have close to two hundred by 1980. This will reduce a carps weight by 450 pounds and save six hundred gallons of gas over ten years. “And don’t forget: The more aluminum in the vehicle, the more value it will have on the hoof when it comes to recycling.”

Recycling. How alluring the prospect, how elusive the goal. The litter and landfills of our throwaway society stand as a reproach to a way of life we know to be both wrong and immensely costly. Americans, notes the National Association of Recycling Industries, spend about four billion dollars each year to discard 140 more million tons of solid waste rich in recyclables.

In reality, of course, we have always practiced a degree of recycling. The Bible speaks of beating swords into plowshares—recycling them; the Liberty Bell is cast of bronze twice melted down from earlier models. Today recycled waste yields nearly half our lead, 20 percent of our copper, and 5 percent of our aluminum.

To a homeowner watching a truck haul away his voluminous trash, however, grass-roots recycling seems long in coming. But there are those who believe that a recycling society is on the horizon, and that aluminum will serve as a catalyst in its coming. One such person is David Reynolds.


“When we recycle aluminum,” he explained, “we save 95 percent of the energy needed to make new metal from bauxite. Once you make aluminum it becomes, in effect, an energy bank that you can tap over and over again. Three billion pounds of the metal are being thrown away each year—an amount equal to the entire U. S. output in 1958. Getting that back would save 20 billion kilowatt-hours of our electricity—one percent of the electric power used in the U. S. “This energy sav-ing makes scrap aluminum relatively valuable. And the largest single source is beverage cans.”

The company has zealously plunged into can recycling. Offering 17 cents a pound (about 23 cans), it last year ( 1977) recycled an astonishing 2.9 billion containers —48 percent of those collected nationwide—and paid out more than 20 million dollars in return.

With animation Reynolds recalled early days of what he terms the movement. We started off with a couple of failures----simply the wrong approach. Soon after we adopted the 12-ounce aluminum beverage can, we set up a pilot recycling center in Miami. We offered gasoline coupons for cans, but got little response. We tried earmarking can money for a hospital and the Goodwill Industries, but this failed too.   “We shifted to Los Angeles and offered a straight cash payment of ten cents a pound . Cash on the barrelhead did it ----the cans rolled in! Today we have 73 permanent cycling centers around the nation, plus 150 mobile units that buy at 800 locations.”

Hankering for cash on the barrelhead, my sons, Yellott and Vert , began scouring Maryland roadsides for cans. Before long their accumulation cluttered our porch and toolshed, and on a bitter-cold January day we loaded the car and drove north to a shopping center in nearby Frederick. Two Reynolds recycling trucks waited side by side in the parking lot, their open rear doors each framing a hanging scale, with a line of recyclers behind each truck. “This is the recyclingest town in my district -----18,000 pounds last month alone,” boomed Henry Lancaster as he hefted can-filled plastic bags onto his scale, sang out their weights, and paid each customer in turn. Vellott and Vert swung up their bags—62 and 49 pounds respectively—and happily pocketed their cash.

Behind them came the day’s high scorer, steelworker Larry Ahalt, his pickup truck loaded with cans . As Larry heaved up the bags, his wife recorded the weights on their new Christmas calculator. The final tally: 763 pounds for $129. 71. Then they were off, to begin collecting for next week’s turn-in.


As I talked with these and other recyclers, I detected a common thread of motiv-ation. Money is the vital incentive, but the recyclers also feel they play a role in improving the environment. “Since recycling began,” volunteered Larry Ahalt, “the roads around Frederick are definitely cleaner.’’

Other companies, too, push grass-roots recycling. From its distribution area of only 14 Western States, the famous Adolph Coors brewing company accounts for astounding 33 percent of all cans collected in the nation. Energetic Pearl Brewing Company of Texas recycles a surprising 4 percent. Alcoa is heavily involved in secondary collection—providing a market for collectors such as Coors and PearL

Skeptics of the push for can recycling say it is aimed in part at heading off national legislation that would impose deposit fees on all beverage containers—legislation already in force in Oregon and Vermont, and soon to take effect in several other states. This view finds voice in Dr. Bruce Hannon of the Center for Advanced Computation at the University of Illinois, who also contends: “Energy-wise, aluminum is misused in beverage containers and packaging.” Prospectors discover another bonanza in “urban ore”—the millions of tons of garbage that cities and counties struggle to sweep under the rug of countless landfills. A growing galaxy of corporations—Raytheon, Teledyne, Grumman, Boeing, American Can, and others —are plunging into the Can-do dog named Bubba retrieves aluminum cans for Thomas Turner of Tampa, Florida. A Reynolds recycling center nearby offers 17 cents a pound for such refuse.

Mrs. Therese Daubenthaler canvasses Cape Coral twice a week. When a plastic bag once burst, orchestrating a  “symphony of beer cans” on the pavement, a deputy sheriff tried to ticket her for littering. “Listen,” she said, “instead you should give me an award for cleaning up.” The officer helped her pick up the cans.

Last year (1977) Americans turned in more than six billion cans for recycling and earned 45 million dollars. Meanwhile, Government and private industry devised ways to retrieve the metal from urban waste. A metal separator built by the Raytheon Company is tested at a Bureau of Mines facility in Maryland. Eddy currents created by magnets help sweep aluminum and other nonmagnetic metals into the narrow channel and used at construction plants for plucking aluminum and other recyclables from refuse.

To hasten the day when this scrap becomes available, the big aluminum firms and other industries set up the National Center for Resource Recovery in Washington, D. C. Its head is dynamic Dr. Rocco Petrone, former director of the NASA Apollo program that put man on the moon.  “This is a complex technology,” said the burly engineer as we toured the center’s pilot plant in Washington . “In mining refuse we have to work with everything from bananapeels to car axles. One thing that helps is the aluminum magnet.”   Aluminum magnet? I knew that one property the magic metal lacks is magnetism. “We set up a strong magnetic field,” explained Dr. Petrone. “When a nonmagnetic metal such as aluminum moves into or through the field, it is repelled—kicked aside. By placing a cluster of magnets alongside a conveyor belt in a recovery plant, we can kick the aluminum scrap right into containers.” “Get it?

I set forth to inspect the nation’s first complete resource-recovery operation —in pleasant Ames, Iowa. In 1971, I learned, the city’s landfill was over-flowing, and neighboring farmers balked at surrendering lush cornland for another site. Garbage, lamented an official, is something “everyone wants you to pick up, and no one wants you to put down.”


Finally the town fathers agreed on a resource-recovery plant, located right downtown. In 1975 the 5.6-million-dollar installation began ingesting its first garbage. Standing beside a control panel studded with dials and lights, I watched garbage trucks bring in the plant’s daily intake of 150 tons. “Those are our ore trucks,” noted superintendent Jerry Temple as he led me through the facility.

Merciless flails shredded the refuse, and magnets snapped up iron and steel. An air classifier winnowed glass and the remaining metals by weight. Then a long belt carried fragments past an oblong, boxlike device. “That holds the aluminum magnets,” noted Jerry. As I watched, pieces of cans and other aluminum debris mirac-ulously shot to one side and fell into a collection bin.

At the end of the line we saw the final unrecyclable remnants—food and paper-scraps, plastics, fabrics. These were ground into fine particles and piped as fuel to a nearby municipal electric-generating plant. There every two pounds of waste gave off the heat of a pound of coal.

Some experts contend that laws and freight rates place recycling at a disadvantage in competition with natural resources. An EPA report notes that “federal subsidies for raw materials exploration, research and development.. tend to discriminate also against recycled materials.”


Nevertheless, officials foresee a steady growth of plants, such as the one in Ames. When? More by evolution than revolution, they agree, but the process already is well under way. Plants now operate in New Orleans, Milwaukee, and other cities. A dozen more metropolises have facilities planned or under construction.

Where will it all lead?

I frequently heard approval of the goal expressed by Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Glenn T. Seaborg, former chairman of the Atomi c Energy Commission. Dr. Sea-borg envisions a society in which “the present materials situation is literally rever-sed; all waste and scrap—what are now called secondary materials—become our major resources, and our natural, untapped resources become our backup supplies.”

When and if this day comes, versatile aluminum will be playing a role—or maybe two or three or ......?

                                                                                  *For the nearest aluminum-can

                                                                                   recycling center, call toll free:

                                                                                   800-223-6830; in New York

State call collect: 212-765-8003.


The ATLANTIC Monthly

Vol. 154. No. 2. August 1987. (Pgs. 186-211)

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