Death and development

By Raffique Shah
November 19, 2006

Besides Alcoa not even referring to its highly-touted new technologies for “safely” disposing spent pot lining (SPL), both the company and the Government have made no reference to the proposed plant being used for recycling aluminium cans and other waste. If Alcoa were to promise to absorb, say, 75 per cent of the beverage cans that prove to be as dangerous to our environment as smelters, I’ll probably back its construction. In the UK, where an estimated five billion cans are used every year, Alcan has established the only dedicated recycling plant for beverage cans.

Of course neither the authorities nor the company ever captures more than 50 per cent of this waste. But, to be fair to them, they are campaigning using easily accessible bins, offering cash, and mounting public campaigns to create environmental awareness.

Aluminium is the most recyclable of metals. It can be recycled repeatedly with no loss of quality. Even better, the recycling process uses substantially less energy than the smelting of raw alumina. In fact, it is estimated that while it takes 13 kWh of electricity to produce one kilogramme of the metal, that usage is cut by almost 10kWh in the recycling process. If Alcoa’s proposed 314,000 tonnes a year plant will absorb most of our used beverage cans, I think many people may think twice about opposing its construction.

But the arguments against Alcoa setting up shop here have gone past recycling. Prime Minister Patrick Manning, who claims to be leading us into “Vision 2020”, must ask himself why no new aluminium smelters are being constructed in the developed North, so-called developed countries that he’s hoping to emulate.

In all of the UK there are a mere three smelters with a total capacity of 355,000 tonnes per year. There is no further expansion or establishment of smelters in North America or Europe. In fact, the list of countries that have embraced smelters reads like a Third World Who’s Who.

Let me spell them out for Mr Manning and those who seem to think Alcoa is the best thing since Randy Rust struck oil in Aripero. The World Bank is backing smelters in: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Guyana, Indonesia, India, Kazakhstan, Malawi, Mozambique, Oman, Russia, Tajikstan, and Turkmenistan. Plants are also slated to be built in Suriname, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Indeed, the latter is of special interest to us. When then Prime Minister Basdeo Panday turned the sod to signal a Norsk-Hydro (NH) smelter in Savonetta, he was blissfully unaware he was being used as a “patsy”. NH, one of the big players in aluminium, was actually seeking leverage in Qatar, and TT was being used for that purpose.

NH went on to sign a multi-billion deal with Qatar to construct a 585,000 tonnes per year plant, 51 per cent owned by the Qatar government. In Abu Dhabi, the largest single-site smelter in the world is due to start construction soon.

It’s a 1.2 million tonnes plant. NH, Alcan and Vedanta Resources are ploughing into Orissa state in India, given free rein by India’s government to “smelt” the bauxite-rich state. Hundreds of thousands of poor people there are displaced as dams are constructed to provide hydroelectric power for these plants. Interestingly, Vedanta is owned by Anil Agarwal, a former scrap-metal dealer who is now one of India’s richest-and most ruthless-entrepreneurs.

Why are these Third World (and yes, even those in the former Soviet Union can be deemed as such) countries being targeted for smelters? Because they have an abundance of energy and cheap labour. Forty-five per cent of the cost of producing aluminium is electricity.

Bauxite is a relatively cheap raw material available widely across the world. Converting it into alumina is as cheap, given the labour costs in bauxite-rich countries. Of course, one does not factor in the cost in health woes or deaths of those who work the mines. But when it comes to smelting, electricity, whether it comes from dams or rivers or gas and oil, is what counts.

Is this Mr Manning’s “Vision 2020”? To put us in the same league as Armenia, Guinea, Malawi or Orissa in India? He may cite Malaysia or China or even India as beacons of 21st century development. But these countries have immense land masses, and they can site these deadly plants where they will kill only the “disposables” in their societies. It’s their culture. Death and development go hand in hand for them. Is that what we want? And I ask again, what real benefits will three smelters bring to T&T? Let us go with Alutrint, ensure it has a recycling commitment, and move on towards being both a developed country and a civilised society. Anything less will expose us as being rich in resources but deficient both in vision and in compassion for our own citizens.

In other words, we revert to being uncivilised for a few dollars more.

4 Responses to “Death and development”

  • I am almost always amazed by the writings of Rafik Shah. They almost always sound like somthing he dreamt the night before and wrote down before he forgets and as a result does no research.

    How much Aluminium cans are there in Trinidad? Last time I checked, most beverages came in plastic bottles. Some imported products come in steel and tin-alloy cans. We get the occasional imported beer cans and red-bull cans but what percentage of the market is that? Is it so much that if only 75% were to be recycled by these smelters, you would change your views on them? If you said, they would take all those scrap cars from junk yards all over the country that are an eyesore then you would be making sense – but no junk king is going to give up his treasures so easily.

    Secondly, recycling Aluminium (whether it be from cans, car parts or aeroplanes) is a completely different process to smelting (or reducing). I say this because you sound like you don’t know. You talk like it’s just a matter of throwing in some old cans with the Alumina stock.

    Third, Alcoa has actually come up with a way to recycle the Spent Pot Lining to recover the fluride, eliminate the cyanide and remain with a grade of sand that can be used as filler for road construction.

    Do some research and ask the real questions – like why is the Gov’t Hell bent on building a smelter in this location where the soil is so geologically unstable that construction costs willl go up astronomically?

  • Oh and you claim in paragraph 1. “the beverage cans that prove to be as dangerous to our environment as smelters..” Where did you get your facts from?

  • The high cost of development is a problem for all of us. Before we go further, I wish that the medical authorities would look at possible health impacts from alumina and let the people know. Aluminum has been found in larger amounts than normal, in the brains of people suffering from Altzheimer’s Disease. (I threw out my aluminum pots years ago, and use only stainless steel.) Some of the combined seasonings Trinidad women use to cook, will melt aluminum- that is, the tin foil you cover the seasoned turkey with to bake it, will get holes, not tears from bones punching it, but melt holes, so I do not cover my meat with aluminium foil.
    No one needs to tell me that those plants are dangerous.

    There are health reasons, not just cheap electricity, why these plants are placed in third world countries, and Raffique is right, their lives are worth less.(Two separate words). To safeguard the lives and wombs of childbearing women of Western Europe and North America, these plants are placed elsewhere, downwind, down-water from those places. The Gulf Stream would not take water from our south west peninsula to Western Europe and the American east coast.

    It may be a clever form of genocide. Many previous attempts have been made to quietly wipe out the non-white people of the world. Ah not joking here nuh! Industrialization might just do it. It may also explain why the dust and metal from the World Trade Center was shipped to India for processing, and why big oil tankers that have to be broken apart for their metal are sent to Bangladesh- places of the world’s disposable people. Unfortunately for the western countries, much of the fish they eat come from those same polluted waters. What goes around comes around.
    Perhaps the World Health Organization can give us some specific statistics on health problems associated with ingested dust from smelters- I am talking about particles too small to see, things that get into the water and the food chain. What do the people within a five mile radius of the English plants suffer from, compared to people living elsewhere in England, in the same age groups?

    (Anyone who doubts the statements about seasonings and tin foil should try it to see, notice too that acidic foods like tomatoes, turn tinfoil black. Is that good for the food that feeds your child’s brain?)

    When the smelter costs really come due, the profiteers would be long gone, and our current todlers will be left holding the bag. We need to remember that another word for development is exploitation. NO ONE BRINGS INDUSTRY TO SMALL COUNTRIES BASED ON ONE LOVE.

  • Good point Sir,we don’t need any more aluminium to be smelted in the world.Collect all that can be recycled worldwide,send them down to our state of the art plant and sell them back.Buy cheap sell for more.
    Let our UWI grads come up with this technology.Shipping crushed cans through the high seas is non hazardous.These cans can be transported even on cruise ships.
    Preserve the environment for our posterity.Let them also see what gouti an’ lappe look like!!! Let biodiversity live!!
    The earth is the LORD’S and the fulness thereof ; the world and they that dwell therein

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