Aluminium beverage can recycling rates by country in 2018

Recycling rates calculated on the basis of the present EU reporting rules.

Source: Metal Packaging Europe & European Aluminium, December 2020

Considering aluminium’s high circularity as a packaging option, there is still a considerable untapped potential for achieving higher recycling rates due to:

  • The lack of widespread and efficient infrastructure for the collection of packaging overall;

  • The occasionally inefficient and outdated collection and sorting infrastructure in place;

  • The collection of aluminium cans by informal groups and individuals that are not officially reported.

Currently, most national producer responsibility schemes still report recycling rates that are based on the waste collected and sorted rather than what is actually being recycled. The result is that recycling figures sometimes include remaining contaminants like other packaging materials or minerals. 

In its previous 2018 Circular Economy Package, the EU adopted a new methodology for the calculation of the recycling targets to measure ‘real recycling’. We estimate that, since the new point of measurement will be more rigorous, it is likely to show an initial drop in the accepted recycling rate for aluminium cans. The new system would record the actual levels of recycling achieved after the final collection and sorting phase. Since manufacturers of aluminium cans have long argued that the current measurement system should be changed to reflect these realities, the EU’s decision is a welcome one. It would mean that in the future, a product will not be considered recycled until it has been properly collected, sorted and separated into each of its component materials. The contamination and material losses resulting from the recycling process would also have to be considered. More accurate figures will help accelerate the transition to a more efficient circular economy, provide a solid basis for moving forward and trigger new investment to improve the entire recycling value chain. This would close the loopholes in current methods.

Aluminium cans are easy to sort as there is no need to physically separate other materials such as labels and lids. Eddy current separation is done in advance and the recycling process is incredibly straightforward. The inherent value of aluminium cans means they will always be recycled once collected. Since aluminium is a permanent material and possesses true closed loop recyclability, meaning it can be recycled over and over again without losing quality, it can be re-used for the same purpose. For every 1 kg of aluminium collected, virtually the same quality and quantity of recycled metal is produced with a few technical caveats. With state-of-the-art furnaces in place accepting only used beverage cans (UBCs) that meet high-quality standards, total metal losses in the recycling process are limited to 2%, mainly due to oxidation. When factoring in the recycling rate and the material losses in recycling, it is clear that the recycling yields of the aluminium recycling process really matter. Once again, this demonstrates the true advantage of the aluminium can as a front runner in sustainability. Unlike other beverage packaging materials, aluminium cans are also rarely subject to degradation, mechanical stress, insolation, water and wind erosion.

To conclude, the EU’s new point of measurement for recycling 2, combined with the high yields of the aluminium recycling process, demonstrate the significant advantages that aluminium cans have in terms of ‘real recycling’. This should eventually lead to the further exploration of their untapped potential for achieving even higher recycling rates by 2025 and 2030 respectively.

1.3 Towards fully circular and low carbon aluminium cans

A fully circular product is one that is designed for recycling and can be recycled with minimum material loss, resulting in a high-quality material at the end of the process for which there is already a market and so remains in the economy indefinitely. Although an aluminium can is such a product, we cannot achieve full circularity unless all cans are collected, properly sorted and recycled.

Our objective, therefore, is to move towards 100% recycling by 2030, not only to achieve material circularity, but also because the higher the recycling rate, the bigger the impact on reducing the carbon footprint of cans. Most of the carbon footprint of an aluminium can is caused by the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated during the extraction of raw materials and in the processing of those ingredients to produce bauxite, then aluminium through smelting. Since the energy required to recycle aluminium is about 5% of what is needed for the production of primary aluminium, the environmental benefits of recycling are clear. The amount of energy saved by recycling (95%) 3 corresponds to an equivalent saving in GHG emissions. Therefore, the recycling of aluminium beverage cans is a real contributor to the reduction in CO2 emissions.

According to Metal Packaging Europe's latest Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) 4 for the aluminium beverage cans produced in Europe using the latest data available (2016), the GHG emissions for a 33cl can decreased by 33% in the period from 2006-2016. This was mainly due to a reduction in electricity (-30%) and heat (-43%) consumption, a 4% reduction in the can’s body weight and an almost 50% increase in the aluminium beverage can recycling rate across Europe, increasing from 50% to 73% in 2014. The 2016 data shows that, in terms of climate change impact, the average contribution of can manufacture is 18% of a can's life cycle and therefore the recycling of aluminium remains the key factor in making further improvements towards full circularity.

With our ultimate goal of heading towards 100% recycling by 2030, we can achieve the aluminium can's potential for full circularity and significant GHG emissions reduction. So it is important to maintain a high recycling rate and improve it further. An increase in the recycling rate of the aluminium beverage can by 5% would allow an average 6% reduction in GHG emissions. Other factors, such as switching to lightweight formats and using more renewable energy, will undoubtedly position aluminium cans as a frontrunner in the transition towards circularity.

Key factors contributing to a substantial GHG emission decrease of a 33cl aluminium beverage can

Source: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of aluminium beverage cans (25, 33 and 50 cl volumes), May 2019

It is also important that we change our approach to LCAs in general and take into account the multiple loops of the material, as well as the qualitative change of the material over time. The decrease in quality of the packaging material during recycling, together with the number of loops (recycled or reused) a material can achieve, are the most pressing issues from a circular economy point of view.