Recyclability of Aluminum
Metal cans are produced using abundant and recycled materials. The earth’s crust consists of approximately 8% aluminum. With that, it is the third most common element.
Aluminum cans via eddy current technology, can be separated easily from other substrates in the waste stream. Approximately 70% of all aluminum cans are recycled globally, making the can the world’s most recycled packaging product.
Because metals are 100% and infinitely recyclable, they can be reused in various applications to become new products again and again. Metal recycling has been around as long as metals have existed. In fact, nearly 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Thanks to the well-established recycling infrastructure, a recycled aluminum package can be back on the store shelf in as little as 60 days.
To understand metal packaging’s environmental performance and its role in a circular economy, the entire life cycle of the product must be considered. That is why Ball has been involved in life cycle assessments since the mid-1980s. In 2021, 86%, $11.9 billion USD, of Ball’s revenue was generated from the sale of products that are manufactured with recycled materials, are reusable or recyclable. These products include aluminum beverage cans, bottles, cups and aerosol cans.
TOWARD 100% REAL RECYCLING
The global recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans stands at 69%, making them the world’s most recycled beverage container. But there are significant regional variations: in Brazil, for instance, the 2020 rate was 97.4%, while the 2018 average across Europe was 76.1% and in the U.S. it was 46.1% in 2019. These figures are much better than for other beverage and personal care packaging materials, but they are still not good enough. If aluminum cans are to be a perfect fit for a circular economy, then the recycling rate needs to be close to 100%. We believe that is possible by 2030.
Used beverage cans are around 10 times more valuable than glass, and around six times more valuable than clear PET. Their clean, homogenous design, using a material that is endlessly recyclable through simple remelting, means that the recycling of used beverage cans is a profitable activity. Because used cans are so sought-after – not only to make new cans, but also to make other aluminum products – if a can is collected, then it will certainly get recycled and stay in the material loop, in contrast to other packaging materials.
The key for cans, therefore, lies not in inventing new recycling processes, nor through better product design, but by ensuring that the number of cans collected is increased through a focus on smarter collection infrastructure (including when people are on the go), improving sorting centers (which need to be updated with the right number and right size of eddy current sorting machines to extract the most valuable material from the stream), and making it easier for consumers to recycle.
There is certainly an opportunity to make changes to curbside collection systems so households can more conveniently sort materials at home. While curbside collection can be upgraded in many regions, especially in the U.S., there is also a significant need to address the widespread lack of infrastructure for can collection on public transportation, in offices, and at sporting and music events.
These venues need to encourage the greater accessibility of recycling bins to allow consumers to separate waste as they throw it away. Perhaps the most pressing requirement is for the greater availability of clearly labeled double or even triple bins in public places that offer separate collection of recyclables and beverage packaging. This needs to become commonplace in all main streets, public places, and in offices and at events – and must be backed up with strong communications campaigns. These extra collection points will require funding, and one of the ways to keep costs low for the industry is to rely on the value of materials recovered more than on increasing EPR fees.
In developing countries, informal collection of cans by individuals and small-time operators is already achieving close to 100% recycling rates in multiple regions. This can be an effective way of collecting valuable recyclables in some parts of the world. The best way to help such collectors is to ensure a safe workplace and efficient transportation of the separated materials, and to educate the public about the advantages of beverage can recycling so people can support the informal sector by providing easy access to used beverage cans.
RECYCLING PROCESSES THAT REALLY WORK
There is no point in putting a lot of effort into collection and sorting if we then lose up to 20 to 30% of the material during the recycling process. This happens with some materials, but not with aluminum cans, which simply have to be remelted at 700 degrees Celsius.
Only around 1 to 2% of aluminum is lost when shredding the bales, and another 2 to 3% due to oxidation in the furnace. Total metal losses in the recycling process can be between 3 to 5%. When factoring in the recycling rate and the material losses in recycling, it is clear that, as we move toward near 100% collection, yields really matter. Once again, this demonstrates the true advantages of the aluminum can.
We believe there is an opportunity to increase can-to-can recycling. Today the remelted aluminum from used beverage cans is also used to make other aluminum products such as cars, building products or less recyclable packaging. As recycling rates increase and contamination decreases (e.g., through DRS), there will be greater opportunities to ensure that cans are recycled back into cans. We see this as an inherent competitive advantage of our material. Already the average recycled content in cans today far outweighs any other substrate.