Can aluminium contribute towards a sustainable society? On the one hand, it’s perfectly suited to the challenge. Aluminium is infinitely recyclable and long lasting. It helps manufacturers produce lighter vehicles, which use less energy, and its unique barrier properties help it to preserve food and medicines. The industry is also a major employer, at the heart of many communities.

On the other hand, producing aluminium from the Earth’s minerals is a highly energy-intensive process. It takes 14-16,000 kWh of electricity to produce one tonne of aluminium from two tonnes of alumina. That’s about one and a half times the average yearly electricity consumption of a household in the US. It’s estimated that globally the production and use of the metal creates 11 tonnes of CO2 emissions per tonne of aluminium1.

Production can also have other environmental impacts – from atmospheric emissions to the land required for refining, smelting and hydropower. There are further challenges for this kind of large-scale industry too, in how it addresses socioeconomic and product stewardship issues.

However, these factors also present opportunities for the responsible producer. In the Saguenay region in Quebec, Canada, Rio Tinto’s operations demonstrate how the company rises to the challenges of sustainable aluminium production. Our operations play an important role in the Saguenay region – contributing to a strong and vibrant economy while caring for the environment and producing a sought-after responsible product.

In all of these three areas we harness innovation, operate as proficiently as possible, and engage with our stakeholders to deliver mutual value.

The Saguenay region:
Home of the grey metal

The Saguenay region:
Home of the grey metal

The Saguenay is a vibrant region located in the vast wilderness of northern Quebec, Canada.

The Saguenay is a vibrant region located in the vast wilderness of northern Quebec, Canada.

Characterised by spruce-covered mountains and majestic rivers, lakes and fjords, the Saguenay is a major tourism hub. It’s also home to diverse industries, including timber, agriculture, energy, and medical research.

The aluminium industry has been at the heart of the Saguenay region since World War II. Aluminium’s light weight and durability made it a critical material in the construction of airplanes, and demand for the metal boomed during the war. It proved a turning point in the region’s economy, driving the expansion and modernisation of factories, and the development of hydropower facilities which made the most of the region’s vast waterways.

Today, “Aluminium Valley” – as the region is known – is one of the world’s leading producers of the grey metal and Rio Tinto is the region’s largest private employer.

The Saguenay is an important part of Rio Tinto’s business too. More than half of the Group’s annual aluminium output is produced here, and it’s home to our industry-leading R&D facilities and partnerships.

Certified low carbon

One of the challenges facing any aluminium producer today is how to meet the rising customer demand for aluminium that is produced with the lowest possible environmental impact. In the Saguenay, the response starts with the energy needed to power the electricity-hungry smelters. The operation’s hydropower facilities are part of a network of assets that take advantage of Quebec’s climate and geography to ensure that 100 per cent of the electricity used in smelting comes from renewable sources.

However even with a low-carbon energy source, aluminium production remains energy intensive. Saguenay is also home to a process that Rio Tinto has developed to further reduce its footprint. AP TechnologyTM, which was developed at our R&D centres, makes it possible to use efficient, high-amperage smelting techniques with low energy consumption. Together with largely carbon-free energy, this has made it possible for Rio Tinto to launch the world’s first certified low CO2 aluminium in different plants across the world. RenewAlTM is certified to create no more than four tonnes of CO2 per tonne of aluminium produced, nearly one-third the industry average.

Being able to trace raw materials from the mine to the end product offers additional reassurance to customers. For manufacturers, this means that aluminium can become part of a “responsible sourcing” strategy. Car manufacturers, for example, can use certified low-carbon aluminium to reduce the footprint of their supply chain, as well as improving vehicle fuel economy.

We’ve also played a leading role in the global industry’s product stewardship initiatives. Rio Tinto was a founding member of the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), a global certification programme for the responsible production, sourcing and stewardship of aluminium. We were also an active participant in creating the ASI Performance Standard, which in 2014 set out governance, environmental and social standards for aluminium production.

Metal for good Metal for good
Employee at the extrusion laboratory of Arvida Research & Development Centre, Jonquière, Quebec, Canada


spent on Lac-Saint-Jean environmental projects

"Perfect 5"

Green Alliance score for port operations


electric vehicle charging stations to date

Protecting the environment

Given their scale, operations like Rio Tinto’s in the Saguenay inevitably impact the local environment.

While hydropower plays a key role in creating low carbon aluminium, it too has impacts. Over the years, our team has been working closely with the local community to minimise the impacts of our hydropower operations on Lac-Saint-Jean, a 1,035km2 lake used for hydro storage. In 1986, following an in-depth environmental and social impact study, Rio Tinto and the Quebec government signed an agreement to protect its banks from erosion caused by changing water levels. To date, C$85 million has been spent in a 30-year programme aimed at countering erosion. Rio Tinto also invests in the protection of wetlands near its facilities, providing financial support for wildlife organisations and the Conseil régional de l’environnement et du développement durable (a regional environmental NGO).

Around the Lac-Saint-Jean, we have partnered with public charging network Electric Circuit and AddEnergie technologies to install five new electric vehicle charging stations. Joining the four stations already in place at several of our facilities, they are helping to promote cleaner road transportation in the region.

The Saguenay operations have also seen consistent success in minimising the impact of waterborne transportation. In 2015, the Green Alliance rated Rio Tinto’s port operations in the region a five out of five for the fifth year running. The categories covered by this accreditation include greenhouse gas emissions, leaks and spills, handling and storage of bulk materials.

Contributing to a strong and vibrant region

The Saguenay operations are embedded in the region’s economy in a way that extends far beyond direct employment at the different facilities. More than 900 local suppliers work with our operations. When the Shipshaw hydropower plant added a 13th turbine, which was completed in 2012, more than 90 per cent of the businesses involved were Quebec-based. It’s also been estimated that phase one of the Arvida AP60 smelter’s construction, completed in 2011, contributed C$607 million to the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region alone.

Rio Tinto also takes an active role in the future of Quebec, through its Regional Economic Development (RED) office, which was founded in 2004. Set up to support the long-term growth and economic diversification of the Aluminium group’s host communities, between 2004 and 2014 it invested C$75 million in the region, creating 2,500 jobs and supporting 162 separate projects and businesses. RED support has, for example, helped repurpose the former smelter site at Beauharnois and launched a centre aimed at commercialising innovative energy-efficiency technologies in Shawinigan. The nationwide Rio Tinto Aluminium Canada fund has also benefited the Saguenay region contributing, for example, C$2.5 million to Quebec University at Chicoutimi for a pavilion dedicated to First Nation culture, and supporting lifestyle and education initiatives.

Metal for good Metal for good
The Saguenay is a vibrant region located in the vast wilderness of northern Quebec, Canada, characterised by spruce-covered mountains and majestic rivers, lakes and fjords

A lasting legacy

Any large-scale manufacturing operation has a major impact on the community in and around where it is sited. It creates jobs, business opportunities for local companies and new infrastructure. But when facilities come to the end of their lives, communities can be left without an economic engine to drive them. In the Saguenay we work tirelessly to extend the life of our investments, promote broader investment in the community and where there is no other option, close down our facilities to the create the best legacy possible.

At the Vaudreuil alumina refinery, Rio Tinto has engaged with the community to secure a longer-term future for a facility that is an important local employer and supplier. Because of its efficiency, Vaudreuil is one of the last alumina refineries in the world not to be located next to a bauxite mine. However, it will reach its capacity for storing bauxite residues by 2022, putting the facility’s future in doubt. Vaudreuil’s closure would mean the loss of more than 1,000 jobs and C$135 million per year in value injected into the local economy. Following public consultation, Rio Tinto has put in place a two-phase project – “Vaudreuil beyond 2022” – to overcome technical, environmental and social challenges and ensure the refinery can continue to operate in the future. In the first phase, a new facility will be built to filter, and hence to reduce, the volume of waste at the existing storage site. Then a nearby site will be developed: this will be used and rehabilitated one section at a time to minimise disruption. The second phase will extend the working life of the refinery to 2047.

Not all facilities have a long-term future, though. In these cases it’s important to ensure that decommissioning happens in the best possible way. After outdated process technology led to the closure of the Shawinigan smelter in Quebec, Rio Tinto spent more than C$50 million demolishing buildings, decontaminating the soil and rehabilitating the site. The site was then handed to the town of Shawinigan for a symbolic C$1. Today it’s zoned for businesses and already hosts specialist casting company Shawinigan Aluminium, which employs 80 people.

Metal for good Metal for good
Aluminium is light weight and durable; ideal for the construction of airplanes

Committed to long-lasting, positive change

In the past few years our business has faced a number of challenges including volatile aluminium prices and increased competition from new market players from the Middle East, Russia and China. Despite these challenges, our Saguenay operations remain a strategic asset for the Group. In 2016 we invested close to C$300 million in our assets, demonstrating our commitment to the region.

Our operations give us the opportunity to bring long-lasting positive change to the Saguenay, and we take pride in the fact that our aluminium is transformed into end products that contribute to higher living standards and a lower carbon footprint for people the world over.


1Based on a life-cycle analysis approach, which takes into account the entire production process, electricity generation, and the product’s use and end-of-life.