Your Soda Cans and Aluminum Foil Are Essential to America's National Security
President Biden took an important step for U.S. national security last month when he highlighted the importance of reliable, resilient supply chains and signed an executive order to ensure that our military and economy always have access to critical minerals, especially in times of crisis. We have seen the importance of this throughout the pandemic, when minerals essential to the production of everything from pharmaceuticals to food packaging have seen global spikes in demand. One of these critical minerals is aluminum.
The federal government has recognized aluminum—the same aluminum rolled up in your kitchen drawer—as “vital to national security, especially in an unexpected or extended conflict or national emergency.” It’s easy to see why: aluminum is used in armored tanks and F-35s, cars and buildings, satellites and semiconductors chips, and (who could ever forget) your beer and soda cans. That’s why the aluminum industry, which generates more than $70 billion in annual output and supports some 660,000 American jobs, was declared essential during the pandemic.
So how can we secure U.S. aluminum supplies? One option is mining and extracting more of it. Most of our new aluminum supplies come from a sedimentary rock called bauxite, which must then be refined into the aluminum we know and love. But the U.S. has limited commercial bauxite mining (it mostly ended in the 1990s) and limited refining capacity. Luckily there is another way to secure supplies of critical minerals like aluminum, and it deserves more attention from policymakers. That method is recycling.
Aluminum is different from plastics and many other recyclables because it can be repurposed and reused forever without losing quality. That aluminum foil covering your dinner could end up in a military application, in the engine block of your pick-up truck, or an endless number of other products. That’s why it’s such a shame when aluminum is sent to a landfill instead of a recycling center. While around 45 billion aluminum beverage cans are recycled annually in the U.S., a near equal amount is now going to landfills.
The new administration has an opportunity to give aluminum recycling its due attention. President Biden’s executive order last month tasked the Department of Defense with drafting a report to the White House on how to shore up America’s supply chain vulnerabilities, and recycling of critical minerals like aluminum should absolutely be on the list.
Federal investments in recycling infrastructure and deployment of technology for better collecting, sorting, and segregating of metals should be a big part of the conversation about resilient supply chains and domestic capacity. As recycling and refining processes become more advanced, we have seen the potential uses for recycled aluminum expand to include new commercial and even military applications.
The House Armed Services Committee also recently stood up a supply chain taskforce, co-chaired by Representatives Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), that presents a notable opportunity to tighten the federal government’s grasp on critical mineral supply. And Congress is beginning to talk seriously about a major infrastructure investment for the first time in decades. In both of these conversations, recycling technology should be front and center.
The good news is that some lawmakers are already thinking in these terms. The Energy Act of 2020, signed into law in December, calls out recycling as one pathway to support our critical mineral supply chains. It also mandated a report about China’s strategic investment in minerals. We know the downside risk when the U.S. is slow to respond to attempts by foreign competitors to monopolize key minerals and components – like we have seen with rare earth minerals and, more recently, semiconductors. There is still a small window of time to implement a holistic policy response to ward off the threat of China’s subsidized aluminum production. Recycling more of the aluminum we already have is a perfect way to start.
Aluminum recycling is an important environmental issue to be sure—the green impact of these policies is more than a mere bonus. But it’s past time to also recognize recycling as a fundamental national security issue. The U.S. Geological Survey acknowledges aluminum as one of only nine minerals that are essential to all industrial sectors, including defense. Open-source Pentagon reports list aluminum as the number one defense material by volume, while an unclassified defense study cites a shortage of aluminum as “hav[ing] already caused some kind of significant weapon system production delay for DoD.”
Policymakers need to recognize the significance of aluminum recycling to our country’s future, and fast, because consumer recycling rates are continuing to fall. In the meantime, the rest of us need to keep tossing our cans and foil into the right bin. Our national security depends on it.
Tom Dobbins is President & CEO of the Aluminum Association.