From can to can in 60 days

The largest and most technologically advanced aluminum recycling plant in the world can be found at the Novelis site in Nachterstedt in the lower Harz region

When Marc Mathiot, manager of the Novelis aluminum recycling plant in the town of Nachterstedt in Saxony-Anhalt, is outside on the works site, it is hard to distinguish him from his employees, because he too has to wear protective clothing. Health and safety is given top priority at the site where up to 400,000 metric tons of scrap aluminum is recycled each year into new highquality metal. The facility allows for the low-carbon recovery of the valuable material, which is then used primarily to make drink cans and lightweight components for the automotive industry.

“Almost every drink can in Europe ends up here for recycling,” says Marc Mathiot and points to the stacks of big colorful bales of crushed aluminum cans. The circular recycling process at the Novelis site in Nachterstedt helps to ensure that aluminum cans are the most recycled type of drink packaging in the world. “In Germany,” explains Mathiot, “more than 99 percent of all drink cans are recycled.” This success story began 20 years ago when the deposit on drink cans was introduced in 2003.

Novelis operates highly sophisticated rolling and recycling plants throughout the world and has so far invested around 300 million US dollars in aluminum recycling at the Nachterstedt site. “The recycling plant in Saxony-Anhalt is currently the largest and most technologically advanced of all of our facilities in North and South America, Asia and Europe,” says Mathiot.

in North and South America, Asia and Europe,” says Mathiot. Every year, Novelis in Nachterstedt processes up to 400,000 metric tons of different types of scrap aluminum. On ultra-modern production lines, the metal is shredded, sorted, cleaned using a thermal process, smelted, and cast into sheet ingots around ten meters long and weighing 25 metric tons. The recycling process, which produces high-quality aluminum from scrap, takes only seven hours. “The process can be repeated an unlimited number of times. Every year, the recycling plant saves around 3.7 million tons of carbon emissions compared with the production of primary aluminum,” explains Marc Mathiot. He mentions the closed loop systems along the entire value chain that retain every gram of aluminum in the cycle. This means that it is possible to make one new can repeatedly from each used can, with no loss of quality. This process takes around 60 days.


Lightweight material for the vehicles of the future

The Novelis site in Saxony-Anhalt also supplies aluminum to important customers in the automotive industry. “The mobility solutions of the future need lightweight materials,” explains plant manager Marc Mathiot. Aluminum is the ideal candidate, for example for vehicle bodywork or for battery housings in electric cars. “Novelis aluminum can be found in more than 225 different vehicle models made by leading global manufacturers. To ensure that none of the valuable material goes missing within these supply chains, we have developed closed-loop logistics systems together with our customers,” says Mathiot. He describes the complex rail transport system used by Novelis in Europe.

“Seven trains currently leave the Novelis plant in Nachterstedt every week to supply end customers in the automotive and drink can industries in the UK with aluminum.” In this circular economy, the aluminum waste from customers’ production processes is returned to the scrap recycling plants. Moving over to rail transport has resulted in a 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions.


The Saxony-Anhalt aluminum alliance relies on good conditions

“Aluminum recycling uses around 95 percent less energy and produces 94 percent less CO2 than primary production and therefore represents an important step toward climate neutrality,” says Marc Mathiot. He adds that innovative products made from aluminum are contributing to the energy and mobility transition. “We need the right political framework in particular, together with internationally competitive energy prices.” Against this background, a joint declaration was signed in Nachterstedt in 2022 by the Industrieverband Aluminium Deutschland e.V. (the German aluminum industry association), the IG Metall and IG Bergbau, Chemie, Energie trade unions, the Ministry for Science, Energy, Climate Protection and Environment and the Ministry for Economic Affairs, Tourism, Agriculture and Forestry of Saxony-Anhalt. The aluminum alliance of Saxony-Anhalt has now been joined by the Befesa Aluminium Germany recycling plant in Bernburg and the HMT Höfer recycling facility in Hettstedt, the Trimet smelting and recycling plant in Harzgerode, the aluminum powder and granulate manufacturer Nimex NE-Metall in Helbra and the packaging manufacturer Slim Aluminium in Merseburg.

All of these companies are important players in the aluminum recycling sector and the circular economy. The aluminum industry is a key sector of the economy in Saxony-Anhalt and also a major employer. Novelis in Nachterstedt is the largest company with 1100 employees. It provides valuable apprenticeships for young people across a range of jobs, together with dual educational and vocational training courses and trainee programs. “We have good contacts with the scientific and research communities,” says Mathiot and mentions Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, which has expertise in the field of materials science, among other things, together with the Technical University of Clausthal and the Freiberg University of Mining and Technology.


Author: Kathrain Graubaum