Aug 10 2008

The Aluminium Industry’s Image Game

By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson, originally published in Morgunblaðið – Árni Sigfússon, the major of Reykjanesbær, wrote an article in Morgunblaðið July 24th, where he highly underestimates the real effects of aluminium production; environmental and social as well as global. The timing of his writings is interesting because a day earlier Saving Iceland’s conference took place in the Reykjavík Academia, where Samarendra Das and Andri Snær Magnason talked about the global effects of the aluminium industry, bauxite mining and cultural genocides in the third world. The conference lead to quite a discussion about the issues in the media.

Árni speaks about aluminium – ”the green metal” – as some kind of a magic solution to solve all the environmental problems we are and will be facing in upcoming years. He points rightly out that most aluminium products can be recycled but adds that only about one third of produced aluminium ends up being recycled. To produce one ton of aluminium, 4 – 6 tons of bauxite is needed, which means that 2.6 – 4 tons are mined only to end up as a landfill. How many tons are that per year?

This is how we are deceived. Every single product which includes aluminium is said to be recyclable, because yes, it can be recycled. The a lot of the time, the cost is simply way too high and the more complicated the product becomes, with several layers of different material, the harder and more expensive it becomes to recycle it. Still, we are made believe that the product is eco-friendly and harmless to the environment, because of the possibility of recycling.

Jakob Björnsson, ex-energy director says in his article July 28th, that I don´s seem to realize that in the end it is our consumption which decides how much and if aluminium is produced. Of course does the production hold hands with how much we consume; not only the consumer’s personal decisions but the whole consuming culture. The line between production and consumption is way to unclear to be able to blame either of it for the current situation. The society is organized with each and everybody’s private car in mind, every 250 gr. of food is packaged in plastic, paper, aluminium or all three, and people are encouraged to buy themselves an “one weekend phone” like Vodafone did this summer. So where does the responsibility? Which came before, the egg or the chicken?
But back to Árni, who now presents so-called “informed environmentalists” who according to him discuss their critique about aluminium production with three things in mind: the destruction of nature because of dam construction, the vision pollution of smelters, and green house gases (GHG) emission.

It’s right, so big and mighty amounts of nature is sacrificed under water all around the world, for reservoir and geothermal areas are destroyed for energy production, aluminium smelters are usually damn quite ugly buildings and it is true that aluminium production emits whole lot of GHG’s. But declaring these three concerns as the only problems linked to aluminium productions is such a delusion and shows clearly the passivity which marks the discussion about aluminium production in Iceland.

The outside look of smelters is not a concern, compared to the real environmental and social impacts of the production. But by focusing on making the smelter beautiful and getting environmental construction artists to design them (like Árni suggests), the real concerns are being hidden – the shit is covered.

A report called ‘Ímyndakjarni Íslands’ (The Image-core of Iceland) that was published last spring, is about how it is possible (and basically is needed) to create Iceland an image; “pure” and attracting. The report states that countries’ images can be built on true facts, guesses and even wrong ideas; the most important issue is to create this image and later the report suggest several disgusting ideas on how to create it.

The aluminium lobby plays this same game. A beautiful aluminium smelter, in style with it’s environment is noting but an image, created to lead people’s minds from the reality.

If there are any “informed environmentalists” existing, it must be the ones who look at and base their ideas on the global context. Informed environmentalists would than (just like Árni) put up a list of three things to bare in mind about aluminium production. Where does the raw material come from? Which are the global impacts of the production? And what is being produced? Without these concerns, it is impossible to talk about aluminium production.

There is noting such as “Icelandic aluminium” and really, there is nothing purely Icelandic. To talk about aluminium production as some kind of a private issue of Icelanders, even only people from Húsavík og Reykjanes, is stupid. A smelter in Bakki, Húsavík, will require bauxite from the third world, transportation of alumina to Iceland, energy from Þeystareykir and Krafla geothermal areas, even Skjálfandafljót and Jökulsá á Fjöllum rivers, and the transportation of aluminium out of Iceland. In the end, the aluminium ends up all around the world in different products.

The green metal is not green at all. It may well be that the image of Icelandic aluminium production is clean and “green”, but that particular image is only a part of the Icelandic Government’s image campaign, which the aluminium industry takes full part in. The image is false and has to be broken.