November 14, 2015

by Adria Boynton

Designers are intrinsically curious.

Mimi Sheller started her recent lecture with the story of a gift. Her partner had given her a vintage advertisement for a cruise. Sheller recognized the company on the brochure as an aluminum manufacturer, and as a designer, she wanted to know more. Why was this aluminum company involved with a cruise line?

Sheller went on to explain that aluminum’s power lies in two of its properties: it’s both lightweight and recyclable (although most aluminum products, like soda cans, are actually thrown out after use). These properties led to increased innovation in transportation, including new designs for cars, airplanes, and space travel. The lightweight metal was quickly adopted by the U.S. military and by architects, to be used in landmark designs like Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House.

But aluminum had perhaps an even more profound impact on patterns of modern life. This new material led to new products, like frozen TV dinners, as well as to the widespread use of packaging that fueled today’s “throw-away” culture.

Aluminum manufacturers are quick to tout the material’s recyclability and the industry’s use of hydropower. However, those seemingly sensitive measures conceal the more devastating environmental impacts of aluminum production. Smelting requires huge amounts of energy and leads to massive hydropower operations in places like Iceland, leaving permanent scars on the landscape.