Even though most towns and cities now have communal collection systems as well as ordinary litter bins, these systems have their drawbacks as well. Consumers need to look for specific collection points often far away from each other and even when there are recycling bins next to litter bins, these suffer from high contamination levels. These systemic problems prevent consumers from disposing of their waste properly. If we are to achieve more ambitious recycling rates in the near future, the set-up of convenient collection points for on-the-go consumption is an important challenge that needs to be addressed in the most functional and immediate way.

A Circular Economy for the Aluminium Beverage Can

Source: Metal Packaging Europe & European Aluminium, March 2021

Brand owners and retailers have a significant role to play, making good use of their wide reach, high profile and the appeal of their products, to develop partnerships with companies and public bodies such as transport operators and local authorities. In parallel, EPR schemes should increase their potential to cover on-the-go separate collection systems for beverage packaging. This could even be extended to bars and restaurants where this is not already the case.

In Italy, the EPR organisation CiAL (the Italian Consortium for Aluminium Packaging Recycling) partnered in 2007 with one of the largest cruise shipping companies of the world to launch a project aimed at promoting and developing the separate collection of aluminium beverage cans on board of the company's cruise ships. All cruise ships now operate a separate waste collection service on board. Over the past twelve years over 40 million cans were properly collected, sorted and sent off to be recycled.

2.2 Existing collection systems for beverage packaging

Another important issue affecting the recycling rate of aluminium beverage cans is the fact that the collection infrastructure for packaging across Europe is not as widespread and efficient as it should be. There is a debate about whether the collection of beverage packaging in the future would be best improved through a kerbside collection system via Packaging Recovery Organisations (PROs) or a Deposit Return System (DRS). Improvement is needed in both systems, together with strong communication campaigns and incentives for consumers to place aluminium beverage cans in the right bin.

2.2.1 Delving into the kerbside collection system: the conventional EPR via PROs

Kerbside collection systems via PROs can be a cost-effective, convenient and a generally efficient way of getting hold of waste, especially when consumers sort their waste at home. However, in practice this is not always the case as consumers often lack the necessary information on the proper sorting practices, due to poor or limited communication. Additionally, waste collection systems are often not harmonised even within the same country when it comes to the type of waste to be collected separately and the colour of the bins or bags in which to place the different types of waste. 

Reducing contamination of waste streams in the co-mingled bin remains the biggest challenge. One of the quickest wins could be made by ensuring that, for example, paper and glass are collected separately from aluminium packaging including beverage cans. This is an issue in the UK and France, where glass and paper disrupt with both the sorting and the recycling processes. A proper separate collection requires better consumer information, but it also needs a change in the way materials are collected by local authorities. For instance, in Italy, the separate collection of aluminium packaging including beverage cans is increasing. In view of the data analysed and the national results of the separate collection of aluminium packaging since 2018, CiAl, has drawn up a special ranking featuring a list identifying the municipalities and waste management operators with the best qualitative and quantitative performance in the separate collection and recycling of aluminium packaging6. A strict separate collection of aluminium packaging should also lead to higher recycling rates for the aluminium beverage can, as the quality of the collected material is better and the rejection rate is lower. The collected material can then only be sorted to produce clean fractions if there is very little unwanted contamination. For example, the Belgian EPR scheme Fost Plus applies a rule of a maximum of 5% contamination after sorting. This guarantees that the sorted cans and other aluminium packaging items easily find their way to recyclers, generating a high scrap income for Fost Plus. 

The day-to-day management of the existing multiple kerbside collection systems across Europe, principally set up by local authorities and adjusted to the geographical specificities of Europe’s regions and territories, is also crucial. The importance of the effective design of the kerbside collection systems for high capture rates is illustrated by examples of poor planning of the kerbside systems and cases priority was given quantity over quality of the collected waste. In this regard, an additional way of ensuring more aluminium cans enter the sorting system (and beverage containers made of other materials) could also be to introduce ‘Pay-As-You-Throw’ municipal collection systems. Under a reasonably priced ‘Pay-As-You-Throw’ scheme households could be charged according to how much mixed residual waste they leave out for collection, usually on a weight or volume basis.  This would attract consumers to more and better collection and sorting for recycling. The success of the ‘Pay-As-You-Throw’ scheme would partially depend on the extent of recycling options offered to and properly used by householders as well as the proper set up of the fee structure. From an aluminium can point of view, it would also depend on whether separate containers for aluminium cans were available.

In summary, to achieve higher capture rates from households, properly set up and well-maintained separate collection under well-managed EPR systems are needed. However, even if 90% of Europeans placed their used cans in the right recycling container 90% of the time, the collection rate without taking account of recovery from incineration bottom ash, would be 81%. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to run regular and targeted recycling campaigns aimed at changing consumers’ long-term behaviour and maximising their participation in the proper sorting of aluminium cans. This should increase the tonnage directly collected from households.

2.2.2 Looking into the ‘Return-To-Retail Model': The conventional DRS

Conventional (DRS) are built around a ‘Return to Retail' model, where customers pay a deposit on beverage containers that can be redeemed by returning them either at the counter (manual) or via automated reverse vending machines (RVMs), usually situated on the retailer's premises. The beverage container has a barcode that is scanned and recognised by machines or devices. The existing conventional DRS systems are funded by a combination of revenues from the sale of the materials collected and unredeemed deposits, with the balance made up from fees paid into the system by the brand owners. In general, existing DRS are effective and RVMs are a well-established technology that delivers high return rates in many countries.

An Overview of Deposit Return Systems for the Aluminium Beverage Can in Europe

Source: Metal Packaging Europe & European Aluminium, March 2021

These principles would establish a fair DRS and would make sure that those users of packaging (fillers and retailers) with better recycling potential bear lower infrastructure costs. Such differentiation would be not only fair but it would also encourage manufacturers to design packaging in a way that improves recyclability. If containers with lower or no recyclability at all attracted a disproportionate fee within any DRS, then this would force better design for recycling.

A 2020 poll of consumers in Scandinavia and Finland on variable DRS deposit fees.  

The survey, which covered Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway and was conducted by Norstat, found that:

  • 97% of respondents felt that variable deposit schemes were easy to use and understand; 

  • A large majority – 87% in Finland, 81% in Sweden, 78% in Norway and 70% in Denmark – also felt they were fairer than flat deposit fees. 

The poll was commissioned by Nature 2030, an international coalition of businesses, politicians and campaigners. It concluded that the success of variable fees in Scandinavia suggests the model should be implemented in all other countries.

On top of this, the key to an efficient, consumer-friendly DRS could be the use of smart digital technology. Implementing a DRS is a possible way forward and has to be seen as part of a whole package working in tandem with an eco-modulated EPR system and an overall policy that provides incentives to the different competing packaging containers to become part of the DRS.

2.3.1 The Deposit Return Scheme of the future

Novel elements of a twenty-first Century DRS integrated into the Conventional DRS

Source: A Deposit Return System for the 21st Century, New Technology Options to Maximise Recycling of Beverage Containers, Eunomia Research & Consulting, September 2020

While conventional DRS systems have succeeded in delivering high collection rates of good quality recyclable material, changes in consumption behaviour and higher recycling targets set at EU level mean that such systems may not be the optimal solutions for the future. Regular on-premises shopping is still a habit for many consumers, yet online grocery shopping and home delivery are expected to grow by 66% by 20238. It is expected that out-of-home consumption will grow further and this could all together increase the demand for smart and flexible DRS solutions.

In response to Metal Packaging Europe’s vision that new technologies can be deployed to drive consumer recycling behaviour at a systemic level, Eunomia9 was commissioned to research, scope and design novel DRS scenarios for beverage packaging, based on innovative technology. The scenarios - presented above- were tested in modelled roll-out simulations for France, Greece and the UK, based on research undertaken with packaging manufacturers, software providers, supply chain logistics organisations, NGOs and bin and reverse vending technology manufacturers.

The modelling shows that the 21st Century DRS scenarios all still achieve higher recycling rates than conventional DRS. However, at this point the exact number of return locations needed to achieve recycling performance equal to, or better than, that achieved with conventional DRS is not known with certainty. The only way to determine this, is by running comprehensive field trials of 21st century DRS to achieve a simulation as close to full roll-out as possible within the trial areas. The Return at Home DRS scenario also offers the benefit of a potential integration of the DRS with the municipal collection system, addressing some of the objections to DRS that have slowed or prevented adoption in the past. Overall, technological advances made in collection point options and individual product serialisation would offer ways of bringing DRS systems into the 21st century, enabling them to adapt to both the environmental and consumer demands of this century.

Scheme operators would be able to choose from different return point technologies, including a wide range of beverage containers to fit with scheme objectives regarding return rate, quality and cost. Based on the above scenarios, important ‘disruptive’ elements of a DRS of the future could include:

  • Return Locations - including door-to-door collection from households, communal collection points at blocks of flats and other commonly visited buildings and spaces such as shopping centres, workplaces and street locations;

  • Return Technologies - including smart recycling bins, crushers, simplified RVMs equipped with interactivity, connectivity and combined with financial incentives for consumers with the view to achieving increased collection and recycling rates for aluminium beverage cans. Good examples of smart recycling bins and systems are already tested or projected around Europe:

    • A smart recycling system made of interactive smart can crushers and a mobile app has been set up in Serbia. It allows users to keep track of each can they put into the crusher, the location of the nearest crusher, the recycling process and the number of recycled items they have contributed while providing them with valuable incentives, thus further motivating users to recycle. Such advanced smart recycling systems could be ideal for outdoor return points thanks to the economics of high compaction;

    • High collection rates of aluminium cans have been achieved in Hungary through Voluntary Take-Back Machines (VTBMs) of the store-based Returpack system in supermarkets and large shops. A DRS of the future could build on this VTBMs system by introducing a small deposit for beverage packaging and using the money to increase the number of machines. These could then be fitted with new technology to register users, linking them to individually coded cans and allowing them to redeem their deposits.

Finally, serialisation coding technology gives each container a unique code, allowing for increased data capture and fraud prevention. With a serialised barcode, containers can be connected with only one redeemable deposit, removing the need for secure RVMs and counting centres. Once scanned, the barcode reference number is deactivated on the system, preventing frauds from consumers repeatedly redeeming deposits. Serialisation also enables the journey of each container through the DRS system to be tracked and recorded. This has the potential to hasten circular economy principles and enable ethical sourcing for buyers.

The combined conclusion of both macro and micro research is that most UBCs end up in litter or disposal facilities such as landfills or waste incinerators.

To address this problem, producers should, through the PROs (either under EPR or DRS) engage with local authorities to encourage them to set up efficient separate collection systems for aluminium beverage cans and ensure that these are well-managed and monitored on a daily basis. This would prevent any arbitrary collection of aluminium beverage packaging by informal groups and individuals. 

An alternative would be to set up partnerships with more organised groups and individuals and convince them to participate in an official can collection initiative run by the industry. In this respect, reference can be made to Brazil, with its close to 97% recycling rate for aluminium cans, mainly due to the many and very well-organised groups of waste-pickers. Back in 2012, local governments, businesses and NGOs got together to agree upon a package of recycling measures to provide extra support to the country’s waste picking cooperatives, which collect five times more beverage cans than municipalities and are the most important actors in the nation’s aluminium can recycling system. A crucial benefit of this has been the informal sector’s ability to keep up with the significant growth in the production and consumption of cans in Brazil. This has helped keep the recycling rate at a very high level, has been a boon to the country’s economy, and has added a collective $96 million to the incomes of collectors between 2012 and 2019.


National authorities are invited to:

  1. Ensure full implementation and enforcement of existing EU waste legislation;

  2. Introduce clear definitions of separate collection in the national legislation with reference to high-quality recycling and treatment standards;

  3. Perform waste sorting analyses and include different types and sizes of municipalities as the basis for planning the collection systems and for monitoring waste collection performances;

  4. Make use of economic instruments, e.g. landfill taxes to favour recycling over landfilling and eradicate illegal and non-compliant landfills;

  5. Allocate funding for the exchange of best practice and mentoring between authorities responsible for waste management as well as for R&I to further advance the effectiveness of their collection systems;

  6. Set-up partnerships with organised groups and individuals and convince them to participate in an official can collection initiative run by the industry.

Local and regional authorities are invited to:

  1. Set up real separate collection of aluminium cans - only recyclables in one bin - in households and on-the-go and in partnership with PROs, in order to put in place well-designed, modern and well-integrated EPR schemes and/or DRS making use of current and novel digital technologies, e.g. smart bins, serialisation of products via unique product coding, RFID tags on bins, etc.

Producers and brand owners are invited to:

  1. Engage to a greater extent in their EPR schemes to ensure coordination with municipalities and the success of the schemes they pay into in achieving high collection rates of high-quality aluminium beverage packaging;

  2. Step up efforts to achieve higher capture rates from on-the-go consumption through increasing the number of consumer-friendly collection points and partnerships with transport operators and local authorities. This could also be extended to the HoReCa sector where this is still not the case.