The reduction of carbon footprint is a huge challenge and goal across the packaging industry and different material types.

A strong magnifying lens has been focused on the sustainability of materials, plastics generally being placed at the epicentre of debate and blame. But what about aluminium?

Rick Hindley, executive director, Alupro, an industry funded organisation representing the UK’s aluminium packaging industry which leads the Every Can Counts initiative, takes us back to the start of the process- Bauxite, which is one of the world’s primary sources of aluminium.

He explains, “Bauxite is the most abundant element found in the earth’s crust. It is mined - and the mining area is typically restored back to its former natural state. The material goes through a smelting process which uses a significant amount of electricity. But what many people don’t realise is that a significant amount of aluminium produced in Europe uses hydro-electric power, a renewable energy source. Yes, it’s an energy intensive process- but you reap the benefits of that energy every time you recycle aluminium, which uses only five per cent of the energy overall in comparison.”

There’s no doubt, according to Rick Hindley, that there has been a noticeable trend of packaging moving from plastics into aluminium cans in some particular areas. “Across the board, this is a niche observation, but certainly within the last six months we have seen an increase in enquiries. I think this is down to the strong message behind the metal can and its recycling capabilities.”

Ramon Arratia, sustainability director for Ball Beverage Packaging Europe (and partners of the Every Can Counts campaign) supports this trend, “We’ve noticed, in terms of consumer habits, a rise in demand for on-the-go consumption. As a result of this, there has been a significant rise in the use of plastic packaging, specifically in the food industry. To address this, we’ve noticed a significant increase in brands making the switch to cans as their packaging format.”

Rick Hindley underlines that of course there is still a role for plastics and other materials: “In this debate our primary interest should be to defend the role of packaging. Yes, a can has advantages, we would never criticise the use of plastics- but it does face challenges from a recycling point of view. Our sector has invested heavily for many years into programmes encouraging recycling of aluminium and has worked hard on putting the infrastructure in place.”

With a recycling rate of 69 per cent, the can is the world’s most recycled beverage container, and can be recycled over and over with no loss of quality, irrespective of colour or design. Furthermore, the lower weight of cans helps to optimise space on shipments, reducing pollution, whilst their cubic efficiency also enables them to be easier to transport.

A collective approach

Indeed, fostering the ideal that the industry and material sectors should work with a unified approach towards sustainability and recycling, beverage carton companies have launched a new platform, EXTR:ACT, to drive the industry’s engagement in recycling across Europe. Heike Schiffler, president of EXTR:ACT and director circular economy, EMEA and Greater China, Tetra Pak tells us more about this platform and its significance for the aluminium sector.

“EXTR:ACT has been created to drive recycling of beverage cartons and similar packaging materials, including the non-paper components, such as polymers and aluminium,” Heike Schiffler outlines. “With this new platform beverage carton manufacturers and their suppliers take additional measures to increase recycling of its packages scale and drive initiatives to enhance beverage carton recycling across Europe. The goal is to achieve a significantly increased collection and recycling rate by 2025 compared to 48 per cent in 2017 for beverage cartons.”

Beverage packaging is highly regulated by the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive which was amended last year. The revised Directive will promote higher collection and recycling rates and also - supported by the eco-modulation of environmental fees - higher recyclability rates for all packaging materials.

“As a consequence of this political direction, Member States on the one hand need to secure that collection infrastructure is developed to collect all packaging,” Heike Schiffler explains. “The packaging industry on the other hand will intensify the work on developing functioning recycling value chains which include sufficient capacities for high quality material recycling of all components of packaging and which develop high-value end products. And so do we.”

Infrastructure needs to be developed or expanded in all Member States and investments need to be made over the next five to ten years to achieve much higher collection and recycling rates. Legislation is challenging the entire packaging industry. This requires from all actors to think and act in new manners. “In this situation it makes perfect sense to explore synergies with other packaging materials. EXTR:ACT will therefore strive for alliances or cooperations with stakeholders pursuing a similar or comparable objective,” Heike Schiffler underlines.

Beverage cartons are today collected either in mixed paper, in lightweight packaging, e.g. together with PET bottles and metal cans, or together with paper cups. “There are several options and maybe even more than already mentioned which we will investigate deeper when new collection systems or an expansion of existing collection infrastructure will be discussed,” says Heike Schiffler. “With regards to recycling we will certainly look into opportunities to recycle beverage cartons together with other products made of similar materials.”

Social movement

When looking at the challenges faced when it comes to recycling, there are several stakeholders that have a part to play along the supply chain journey. Essentially, these challenges must be addressed by the brand, the provider of the packaging, policy makers and also waste management companies. Ramon Arratia supports the charge for a sustainable future.

“Led by consumers becoming more mindful of their environmental impact, we’re noticing more and more awareness in the packaging sector when it comes to waste and recyclability. Brands have started to communicate more about the carbon footprint of their products and the recyclability of the packaging itself, which shows no signs of slowing down. In today’s climate, there really is no scope to release a product into the market that isn’t recyclable in some way or form.”

Ramon Arratia concludes that retailers and brands are beginning to take certain risks. “For example, a few years ago the idea of water in cans would have been unthinkable, yet in today’s climate we’re seeing many water brands make the move and canned water has become a hot and trending topic.” The possibilities of where this journey will take us, driven by the sustainability trend, will certainly widen into new packaging concepts across the board of materials and schools of thought.