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Don’t bottle it: why aluminium cans may be the answer to the world’s plastic problem

Don’t bottle it: why aluminium cans may be the answer to the world’s plastic problem
18 Dec
2019
Recent claims suggest that plastic recycling does little to tackle the issue of plastic pollution. Instead, the infinitely recyclable nature of aluminium beverage cans could offer a promising packaging alternative, highlighting fundamental flaws in the life cycle of single-use plastic

Most consumers take comfort in the idea that disposing a used plastic bottle or item of packaging in a labeled refuse container secures it a pass to a recycling facility, where eventually it will emerge as a new product. In fact, according to a citizen survey conducted by the charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and NGO, the Industry Council for Packaging & the Environment (INCPEN) earlier this year, over half of UK consumers (59 per cent) agree with the statement ‘I’m less concerned about packaging, including plastics, if my council collects it for recycling and it does get recycled’.

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While bottles are one of the most readily collected plastic items – and can be recycled with relative ease – their reprocessing actually does little to benefit the environment long-term, according to EU-supported industry consultant group, Zero Waste Europe. Mechanical recycling, which describes the shredding and melting down of used plastic into flake-like grains to be sold on to manufacturers, ‘is kicking the problem of plastic waste into the long grass,’ according to the organisation.

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This is largely down to the open-loop nature of the plastic recycling process, or as it is better termed, the ‘downcycling’ process. Contrary to popular belief, plastic bottles are rarely used to make more bottles or plastic packaging which, according to a 2017 report from CNBC, means that ‘nearly every drink we buy is packaged in new plastic’. It finds that major soft drinks companies only source approximately seven per cent of their plastic from recycled materials. The same goes for food packaging, which is typically made from new resin to lower the risk of food contamination.

The chemical fibres in plastic bottles and objects made from the polymer strain Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), considerably weaken when the product is recycled, meaning they are usually turned into items such as carpets, fleece-lined clothing, jumpers, jackets and sleeping bags. In the making of these goods, various other non-recyclable elements are added, meaning that the products are likely to eventually end up in landfill, along with the 700,000 tonnes of textiles that are thrown away each year in the UK. Plastic recycling, in most instances therefore, merely delays the inevitable.

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To add to this, a report by public-access data bank, Our World in Data highlights that, in 2015, around 55 per cent of global plastic waste was discarded, 25 per cent was incinerated, and 20 per cent was recycled. Of the plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2015 (around 6.3 billion metric tons), only 9 per cent was recycled. It remains widely unknown that most of what we throw into our recycling bin never gets reprocessed because only two out of the seven common plastic varieties are widely recyclable.

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Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, claimed last year that ‘recycling alone will never stem the flow of plastics into our oceans; we have to get to the source of the problem and slow down the production of all this plastic waste.’ Increasing emphasis is now being placed on halting plastic production altogether and sourcing sustainable packaging alternatives.

The aluminium can, praised not only for its durability but also, crucially, its recyclability, may be the best replacement for plastic when it comes to beverage packaging, according to experts. Recycled within a true closed-loop system, aluminium retains its quality each time it is reprocessed, meaning cans are able to be transformed back into themselves an infinite number of times. Unlike plastic bottles, the average rate of recycled content in European aluminium beverage packaging is 47 per cent.

Marcel Arsand, sustainability manager – UK and Nordics at Ball Beverage Packaging Europe, said: ‘Aluminium beverage cans are the most recycled beverage containers in the world and have numerous benefits when compared to other packaging. From the consumer’s perspective, they are lightweight, shatterproof, quicker to chill and provide a total light barrier so the taste of their drink isn’t affected. Due to the size, they also provide great portion control, especially for the younger and more health conscious shopper of today. For brand owners and retailers, cans are easily stackable with great cube efficiency, meaning less vehicles on the road and more cans on shelves. They also represent less fees in terms of producer responsibility.’

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‘Cans are special because the loop – consuming, throwing it away and collecting it – only takes 60 days. So, this [can] will be drunk, thrown away, collected and it will be a can again in 60 days. That’s a really quick cycle’, claims Alexander Kuzan, vice president of Can, Novelis Europe, the world’s largest recycler of aluminium. The high intrinsic value of aluminium partly explains this rapid turnover rate, incentivising collectors and recyclers alike. According to the Aluminium Association, aluminium can scrap is worth $1,317 per tonne on average versus $299 per tonne for plastic (PET) and -$20 per tonne for glass.

‘A recycled can uses five per cent of the emissions of a can made from aluminium that comes out of the ground. Why? Because to make aluminium out of Bauxite takes a lot of energy. Of course, if you recycle it, all this energy is already packed into the material,’ Kuzan continues, explaining that recycled aluminium uses 95 per cent less energy than primary production. ‘It is the most sustainable solution because it is actually cost-effective to recycle,’ he claims. Three-quarters of all the aluminium ever produced is resultantly still in use today, which somewhat compensates for the fact that mining Bauxite ore, the primary material used in its production, is an environmentally destructive and energy-intensive process.

A four-stage system enables the continuous aluminium recycling process, according to Novelis. Once delivered to plant, the cans are shredded and stripped of paint and lacquer before being melted down in preparation for the casting process. Then, the molten metal is poured into moulds, creating ingots that are composed of approximately 1.5 million cans. The ingots are then shipped to a mill for rolling into vast sheets, which manufacturers use to produce new cans.

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In production, amendments are increasingly being made to compete with the convenience of plastic packaging. Resealable lids can now be fitted on cans in replace of a ring-pull and are being favoured by companies such as Can O Water and Xolution. This would have once affected the recyclability of the product, but recyclers are now finding ways to deal with non-metal features. Kuzan claims, ‘Resealable lids are innovative solutions because resealing is one of the problems you have with cans. If you throw this [cap] into our system, it just gets burned, but in an eco-friendly way. We have filters, we re-use the heat, it's very energy-efficient. The [environmental] impact is reduced, and we use the energy from the organic burners to reheat the metal furnaces.’

Novelis is certainly making strides, having also debuted the evercan in 2014; a can made from 90 per cent recycled content. Despite efforts to endorse its sustainable solution however, little commercial interest has been shown in the product, with only one micro-brewery in the United States using the new development to package its craft beers.

It appears that kicking the plastic habit is proving difficult. Aluminium might be the ‘best material to use for packaging’ and a promising solution to environmental problems, according to Kuzan, but the relative cheapness and versatility of plastic means major corporations are yet to be persuaded. ‘Despite the increasing scientific understanding of the irreversible damage plastic can cause to our environment and communities, plastic production is projected to increase. The fossil fuel industry intends to increase production by an additional 40 per cent over the next decade, and plastic could account for 20 per cent of the total global oil consumption,’ a revealing 2019 report from Greenpeace claims.

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‘The plastic pollution crisis will only be resolved when companies that profit from single-use plastic declare “peak plastic” and commit to urgent reductions in the amount of single-use disposable packaging units they sell… It’s abundantly clear that recycling can only ever make a small dent in the rising quantities of plastics being produced and the inevitable plastic waste,’ it continues.

A viable, although admittedly imperfect alternative is ready and waiting in the form of the can. Yet, it appears the costs involved in eliminating plastic altogether are too much to currently bear, even for the sake of a planet buckling under the weight of plastic pollution.

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