Recyclability revisited

By IM Staff
Published: Tuesday, 17 November 2020

In ever more environmentally conscious times, the recyclability of steel and aluminium packaging has come to the fore around the full circle of the supply chain, reports Gregory DL Morris

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.

Starbucks recyclability

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 America."

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 all segments.

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 metals industry. 

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 commodities combined."

"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 2018.

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 initiative.

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 Apple. 

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 volumes."

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 beverage cans.

"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 laminated forms.

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 industry."

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 decent."

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 applications.

"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.