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Last Update:2023.12.12

Circular Economy in the Aluminum Industry

Mitsui Bussan Metals aims to build a sustainable society through domestic and international sales of nonferrous metal products, raw materials, and scrap metal. We spoke with the company about its efforts to reduce the environmental impact of its core aluminum business throughout the entire value chain, from the procurement of aluminum raw materials in the form of scrap and recycled ingots to the sale of aluminum products.

Aluminum, which is indispensable in our daily lives, is known as a metal suitable for recycling that can be recycled using only a small amount of electric energy compared to the production of new aluminum ingots and contributes to energy conservation. With the recent focus on low-carbon and circular economies, how is Mitsui Bussan Metals contributing to a recycling-oriented society in the aluminum value chain? We interviewed a person in charge.

New aluminum ingots and recycled ingots, their characteristics and differences

--What are the characteristics of both new aluminum ingots and recycled ingots?
Tachi The advantage of new bullion made from bauxite, a natural underground resource, is that it can be easily adjusted to the quality required by manufacturers and others because it contains almost no impurities with an aluminum purity of more than 99.7%. However, it requires an enormous amount of electricity during production.
Recycled ingots, on the other hand, are recycled ingots made by melting down used aluminum, and consume only about 3% of the electricity of new ingots during production, which has the advantage of reducing CO2 emissions. Recycled ingots also have the advantage of cost reduction because the metal components other than aluminum are defined by JIS standards, etc., and the necessary components for product standards and strength are already included, so the addition of new necessary metal components is not required for recycled ingots.
Taishi Tachi, Tokyo Sales Office, Light Metal Raw Materials Department, Mitsui Bussan Metals Co., Ltd. joined Mitsui & Co. in 2015. After working in the Coal Department of the Metals & Mineral Resources Division and overseas, he was transferred to Mitsui Bussan Metals in May 2022. He is in charge of the logistics of recycled aluminum ingots. With recycling awareness on the rise worldwide, our role is to connect the voices of our customers and end-users.
Taishi Tachi, Tokyo Sales Office, Light Metal Raw Materials Department, Mitsui Bussan Metals Co., Ltd. joined Mitsui & Co. in 2015. After working in the Coal Department of the Metals & Mineral Resources Division and overseas, he was transferred to Mitsui Bussan Metals in May 2022. He is in charge of the logistics of recycled aluminum ingots. With recycling awareness on the rise worldwide, our role is to connect the voices of our customers and end-users."
--What kind of products can only be made with new bullion?
Maruyama: A new metal with high aluminum purity is used for products known as aluminum foil. Used in capacitors, lithium-ion batteries, pharmaceutical packaging, and household cooking foil, aluminum foil supports our daily lives in a wide range of fields. It may be possible to make them from recycled ingots, but recycled ingots contain impurities (added metals), and for reasons of manufacturing efficiency, new ingots are almost always used from the beginning.
Kohei Maruyama, Raw Materials Office, Light Metals Raw Materials Department, Mitsui Bussan Metals Co., Ltd. joined the company in 2019 as a Career. He has been involved in a wide range of nonferrous metal scrap, mainly aluminum. He says,
Kohei Maruyama, Raw Materials Office, Light Metals Raw Materials Department, Mitsui Bussan Metals Co., Ltd. joined the company in 2019 as a Career. He has been involved in a wide range of nonferrous metal scrap, mainly aluminum. He says, "Aluminum scrap has no drawings or model numbers, and I am free to buy it from anywhere and sell it anywhere. The interesting part is that a business can be created depending on how you do things."

Reducing Environmental Impact in the Handling of Aluminum Products

--How are you working to reduce environmental impact in the import and sale of aluminum products?
Li: We emphasize doing business with suppliers that are proactive in addressing environmental issues. Specifically, these include companies that comply with environmental regulations, companies that have an environmental vision, companies that focus on "green aluminum," new aluminum ingots produced from natural energy sources such as hydroelectric power, and companies that promote the use of recycled ingots.
We are also working with manufacturers to reduce the weight of aluminum sheets. Lightweighting not only leads to cost reductions, but also reduces the environmental impact during manufacturing and transportation, contributing to CO2 reduction.
Li Minyu, East Japan Sales Office, Aluminum Products Department, Mitsui Bussan Metals Co., Ltd. joined Mitsui in 2010. She has been mainly involved in importing aluminum sheet products from China. I find it very rewarding to work to support the supply to Japan, where resources are scarce.
Li Minyu, East Japan Sales Office, Aluminum Products Department, Mitsui Bussan Metals Co., Ltd. joined Mitsui in 2010. She has been mainly involved in importing aluminum sheet products from China. I find it very rewarding to work to support the supply to Japan, where resources are scarce."
--What are the recent trends in the aluminum industry?
Maruyama: An increasing number of aluminum product manufacturers want to increase the recycling rate of their products in order to realize a low-carbon society. In the past, some manufacturers have used aluminum scrap partly for price reasons, but increasing the rate of its use may cost more than new ingots. Even so, we are receiving more and more requests to reduce the rate of new bullion use and increase the percentage of scrap, even if it costs more, and we are sensing an increase in environmental awareness on a daily basis.
Li: Beverage can manufacturers are also increasingly inquiring about the use of raw materials with increased recycling rates in the future, indicating a growing awareness of the need for low carbon emissions.
--What is the situation of Japan's aluminum-related industry from a global perspective?
Maruyama: Since the two oil shocks of the 1970s, the domestic aluminum bullion smelting industry has declined due to soaring electricity costs and other factors, and all new aluminum bullion is now imported from overseas. On the other hand, recycled aluminum ingots have the technological strength and competitiveness to compete with the rest of the world. This is because the electricity required to produce recycled aluminum ingots is only about 3% of that required to produce new ingots, and Japan has an established sorting and collection system that is sufficient to recycle aluminum scrap as a resource. I believe that recycled aluminum ingots will attract even more attention and promotion, partly due to growing environmental awareness.

Linking the value chain through internal collaboration to propose new markets to customers.

--What kind of aluminum products does Mitsui Bussan Metals specialize in?
Ueno: One is "aluminum extrusion shapes" used in window sashes and other products. Aluminum products that are visible to the public tend to demand new ingots with high aluminum purity for surface quality (good appearance). In response to this trend, we are proposing to manufacturers to make products with a higher ratio of aluminum scrap to the extent possible with our manufacturing technology, in order to maintain a certain level of surface quality by moderately mixing aluminum scrap, while at the same time "reducing product prices while taking the environment into consideration.
--That is a great attempt.
Ueno: However, increasing the aluminum scrap ratio tends to cause streaks and bubbles on the aluminum surface and increase the product defect rate. Although there is no strength problem and it is only an appearance issue, it tends to be avoided in products for general consumers such as window sashes. With this in mind, we are searching for the optimal balance between environmental value and cost advantages.
Mari Ueno, Sales & Operations Office, Aluminum Products Department, Mitsui Bussan Metals Co., Ltd. joined Mitsui in 2012. She is in charge of domestic sales of aluminum extrusion shapes. I think it is a rewarding experience for a trading company to be able to deal with customers in a wide range of industries and to be able to provide them with the information I gain from these relationships.
Mari Ueno, Sales & Operations Office, Aluminum Products Department, Mitsui Bussan Metals Co., Ltd. joined Mitsui in 2012. She is in charge of domestic sales of aluminum extrusion shapes. I think it is a rewarding experience for a trading company to be able to deal with customers in a wide range of industries and to be able to provide them with the information I gain from these relationships.
Maruyama: Currently, we are trying to expand the use of aluminum scrap for products such as aluminum scaffold boards used at construction sites, where cost and product strength are more important and prioritized than surface quality. Some suppliers shy away from changing the ratio of raw materials for certain products because they consider it a "major burden on manufacturing management. In such cases, we sometimes partner with overseas manufacturers that emphasize environmental value and take it seriously. In this way, we are able to propose a wide range of uses for scrap materials and at the same time flexibly select suppliers, which is one of our strengths as a company that deals with a wide variety of domestic and overseas customers and suppliers.
--In order to match suppliers and sales partners in a flexible manner, it is important to have internal cooperation.
Ueno: Yes. Within the company, the Light Metal Raw Materials Department, which handles scrap and recycled metal, and the Aluminum Products Department work closely together to share information. In addition, the network of the entire group is functioning effectively, for example, by utilizing the network of Mitsui & Co. to develop overseas business partners.

Responding to customer requests for higher recycling ratios

--Please tell us about the operations of the Light Metal Raw Materials Department.
Tachi: The Light Metal Raw Materials Department promotes and develops two major businesses. One is to procure recycled ingots derived from scrap metal from Japan and overseas and sell them to domestic manufacturers. The other is to purchase aluminum scrap generated at factories and in the market and sell it to recycled ingot manufacturers and others who remelt it.
--How is aluminum "recovered"?
Maruyama: For example, aluminum scrap is sorted and collected throughout Japan by local governments and private companies, just as we consumers sort and discard aluminum cans as recyclable waste. Scrap dealers, who are responsible for collection, sorting, and efficient transportation, neatly sort aluminum cans into cans, plates into plates, and sashes into sashes, before packing them and selling them to manufacturers.
Tachi: In Japan, not only aluminum scrap from factories as NG products, but also aluminum scrap from facilities and households is collected and processed by sorting by single aluminum type, making Japan one of the most advanced recycling countries in the world. In particular, the recycling rate of aluminum cans is extremely high at 96.6%.

Mitsui Bussan Metals' wide range of services enables us to meet diverse needs.

--What are the strengths of Mitsui Bussan Metals?
Maruyama: One of our strengths is that we have built relationships of trust with many suppliers, customers, and cooperating companies for each aluminum product. We do business not only in Japan but also around the world, and we are aware of market trends. Based on domestic and overseas market prices and information, we are developing aluminum resource recycling globally, including exporting aluminum scrap collected in Japan to overseas markets.
Tachi: There are many companies that operate as part of the aluminum value chain, such as scrap collection and recycled metal production, but I think there are few companies that handle such a wide range of aluminum products and are involved in such a comprehensive value chain as we are. This allows us to leverage our broad network and provide a variety of value to our customers.
--What are your future prospects in the aluminum business?
Maruyama: We would like to provide optimal solutions for customers facing a variety of challenges by leveraging our network and comprehensive capabilities. We would also like to promote "building a framework for the future" toward the realization of a decarbonized society by leveraging our knowledge of environmental issues centered on the circular economy.
--Thank you very much for your time today.

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