The coffee can is back. The once-ubiquitous container gave
way to paper, plastic, and more recently, single-brew
disposable pods. Convenience remains a selling point, but the
zeitgeist has shifted firmly to sustainability, driving a
renewed focus on the recyclability of metal packaging that is
both broad and deep.
Metal packaging has the highest recycling economic impact
of all commodities at more than $55 billion in 2019,
according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. The
next closest material was paper, at $34 billion.
Earlier this year, coffee leviathan Starbucks introduced
mini cans. "Each holds 1.3 oz of ground coffee, which
produces 4-6 cups," reported trade publication Packaging
World, which noted that the can features a ring-pull
aluminium top on a steel body and bottom.
Starbucks stresses the 100% recyclable packaging on
their website: "After enjoying, Fresh Brew cans and boxes [in
which the cans are packed] are ready to be recycled," the
coffee company highlights on its website.
The resurgence of metal packaging reaches the length of
the supply chain, from consumer retail back through primary
production. Early in October, Rio Tinto and Anheuser-Busch
InBev (AB InBev), the world’s largest brewer,
formed a global partnership committed to package beverages in
cans "made from low-carbon aluminium that meets
industry-leading sustainability standards." Under a
memorandum of understanding the effort will start in North
America. AB InBev uses Rio Tinto’s low-carbon
aluminium made with renewable hydropower, along with recycled
content, to produce beer cans. The partners say the effort
"will offer a potential reduction in carbon emissions of more
than 30% per can compared to similar cans produced today
using traditional manufacturing techniques in North
The can industry in the US accounts for the annual
domestic production of about 119 billion food, beverage,
aerosol, and general-line cans, according to the Can
Manufacturers Institute (CMI) trade association. The industry
employs more than 28,000 people with plants in 33 states,
Puerto Rico and American Samoa; and generates about $17.8
billion in direct economic activity. Furthermore, CMI data
show the can business is growing by double digits in almost
Another indication of the strength of interest in
recycling is the London Metals Exchange’s plan
to introduce a new aluminium used beverage can (UBC)
contract, which, together with its ferrous scrap products, it
states forms part of the LME’s drive to provide
products which facilitate greater sustainability in the
In a virtuous circle appropriate to recycling, several
factors have come together to drive the renewed focus. Metal
packaging, particularly cans, has been recyclable from the
start. What is new is being able to measure, and promote, the
volume and value of what is actually being recycled. At the
same time, there is a new emphasis on the part of mills to
reduce the emissions from primary metal.
Volume and value
"Recycling has both an environmental and economic impact,"
said Scott Breen, vice president of sustainability at CMI.
"Making an [aluminium] beverage can with recycled material
means more than 90% less energy used and more than 90% less
greenhouse gases emitted than making a can with virgin
material. Similarly, making a steel can with recycled
material means 75% lower greenhouse gas emissions than making
a steel can from primary material.
"On the economic impact front," Breen continued, "we know
that aluminium and steel cans represent a little more than
half of the total annual market value of all recyclables at
single family homes. More generally, the U.S. metal recycling
industry has a larger economic impact and supports more
American jobs than the recycling industry of all other
"In the United States, only 36% of all new beverage SKUs
[stock-keeping units] were packaged in aluminium containers
in 2015," Breen noted. "However, in 2019, that statistic
nearly doubled, with 67% of all new beverage SKUs packaged in
aluminium containers." He cited the 2019 annual report of
Ball Corp. one of the top three can makers.
Breen also noted Coca-Cola’s 2019 Business
and Sustainability Report says that aluminium and steel
comprised 23.8% of its packaging material mix.
That’s up from 2016, when aluminium and steel
were just 12%. In that same time period, polyethylene
terephthalate (PET) went from 59% in 2016 down to 45.2% in
Coca-Cola’s Business and Sustainability 2019
report also notes that 60% of the equivalent bottles and cans
the company introduced into the market in 2019 were refilled,
collected or recycled – up from 56% in 2018. The
improvements are significant because it was widely reported
in the general media early last year that Coca-Cola had
revealed that it had been producing 3 million tonnes of
plastic packaging a year in 2017.
"I saw the other day that there’s now a
canned sports drink. That could catch on and mark a move away
from PET plastic. We’re seeing that in kombucha
and ready-to-drink coffee, among others," Breen observed. He
further noted that all three of the major can manufacturers
– Ardaugh, Crown, and Ball, have committed to lower
their carbon footprint as part of the Science-Based Targets
Similar developments are under way upstream. In 2016, Rio
Tinto launched RenewAl, which the company asserts is "the
world’s first certified low CO2 primary aluminum
brand." The company is a founding member of the Aluminium
Stewardship Initiative (ASI) and was "the first producer to
offer ASI Aluminium in 2018."
In a related development, Rio Tinto and Alcoa formed a
partnership called Elysis to develop aluminium-smelting
technology that is free of direct greenhouse-gas emissions.
The initiative is supported by the government of Canada and
province of Quebec, as well as consumer device maker
Can market booming
Norsk Hydro introduced two brands to address the carbon
footprint of aluminium production. Hydro Circal is
third-party certified as 75% post-consumer scrap content,
giving it a carbon emissions rate of lower than 2.3 kg CO2
for each 1 kg of aluminium in the coils delivered to
manufacturers. It is produced at plants in Norway and Germany
and shipped worldwide. Hydro Reduxa is primary aluminium made
in Norway by using hydropower, giving it a carbon-emission of
4 kg CO2 for each 1 kg of aluminium produced. Both are
third-party certified by DNV GL.
"In cans you can incorporate post-consumed metal," said
Boris Kurth, head of the can business unit of Hydro Rolled
Products. "The can market is booming, with capacity being
added worldwide. There is so much added volume that even the
strong growth in post-consumer material means it is still a
relatively small percentage."
Several factors have come together to support the surge in
low-carbon aluminium, Kurth explained. "Process scrap has
always been part of the supply chain, and there has long been
some post-consumer share. What we are seeing recently is an
increase in collection programs and post-consumer
Also, the industry is looking into the scrap pile for all
kinds of aluminium, Kurth stressed. The recently popular
single-serving coffee capsules are 3000 series, the same as
"Recycling technology has advanced. There are new and
different capabilities in shredding, sorting, and decoating.
In the old days the primary-metal operations would try to be
separate from the secondary market. Now it is the opposite.
Primary is eager to incorporate secondary. We are convinced
that sustainability and profitability go well together. Hydro
has a goal of reducing its own emissions by 30% by the year
2030," noted Kurth.
Trends in steelmaking are supporting greater packaging
recycling too. Based on data reported to the US Environmental
Protection Agency, the Steel Manufacturers Association (SMA)
has calculated that steel from an EAF has greenhouse-gas
emissions 75% lower per ton than steel from a blast furnace.
"Our position is that any time tin-plate steel from an EAF is
used for packaging, it is low carbon-emissions steel," said
Eric Stuart, vice president of energy, environment, and
infrastructure at SMA.
Tin-plate steel is the primary form used in packaging,
according to CMI. Steel-packaging can also use tin-free
steel, an electrolytic chromium-coated steel. There are also
Stuart also noted that even when steel for packaging or
the retail goods themselves are imported, that steel enters
the recycling loop. "Consumers make decisions at the point of
purchase," he said, "but consumers can’t reverse
climate change alone. They need the support of a robust
Recycling favors metal
Because containers represent such a small portion of total
steel production, about 2%, the segment has not been closely
tracked. Mark Thimons, vice president of sustainability at
the American Iron & Steel Institute said that the
association is in the midst of an effort to track recycling
rates for steel by segment.
"What I can say at this point is that of the 67 million
tons of steel recycled in the U.S. in 2017, about 1.3 million
tons of that was from containers," said Thimons. "The last
time a recycling rate for steel containers was published in
2014, it was between 60 and 70%. It is likely to have
remained in that range. One ton of recycled steel saves 2,500
pounds of ore and 1,400 pounds of coal."
Thimons added that, "we are hearing anecdotally that
packaging markets that went away from steel are
reconsidering. The focus on the circular economy certainly
fits well with metals in general and steel in particular. A
single recycled food can saves enough energy to power a
10-watt LED bulb for 24 hours."
For all the building momentum for post-consumer recycling,
it remains highly variable. "It’s surprising how
many containers don’t get into the curbside
bin," said Thimons. "That is mostly a matter of education.
The second route for a lot of containers is institutional.
Those are usually larger containers, the traditional #10 can
for example, and those recycling rates are pretty
It is outside the dedicated metal recycling system that
steel has the advantage of being easily extracted from mixed
waste streams, even trash. Several sources noted how
municipal waste systems and even landfill remediation are
increasingly 'mining’ for scrap steel.
At the larger end of the metal packaging range is the
iconic 55-gallon steel drum. It remains the standard for
shipping non-bulk liquids internationally. That is because a
single worker with a hand truck can move a drum. Given the
global scrap steel market, sources are confident that a good
portion of steel drums are ultimately recycled, noting of
course that many are re-used for other purposes, from
structural to musical.
A very different type of recycling applies to aerospace
aluminium. The 7000 series often used in that sector is very
different from the 3000 series used for food packaging.
Packaging grades are recycled as such, while aviation grades
become secondary foundry alloys, often in vehicle
"The key performance indicator for the US is about 73%
recycle rate for beverage cans," said Breen at CMI. "That
sounds pretty good, but Brazil’s rate is 98%. Of
all the cans recycled last year, 40% came from just the 10
states with deposit laws, so we think this country can get to
100%." Recently CMI announced a grant program to help
materials recovery facilities (also called multi re-use
facilities, MRFs, pronounced "murfs") that sort mixed
post-consumer streams to add or upgrade their eddy-current
equipment used for separation.