The Sustainability Story

The beverage can is the most recycled drinks package in the world. Every can collected will be recycled, and all cans are infinitely recyclable with no loss of quality. With the can lighter than ever before and each one recycled dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of the next one made, cans are proving to be the efficient, sustainable drinks solution – right from manufacture and through the supply chain into consumers’ homes.

Sustainable to the core

Beverage cans have a very high recycled content – each can is made of at least 50% recycled materials. A key reason for the can’s impressive sustainability record is down to the materials used to produce cans. Steel and aluminium are both in plentiful supply; aluminium is the third most abundant metal in the earth’s crust and iron ore used for steel production is the fourth, whilst steel is the world’s most recycled material. Using recycled aluminium to make new products saves 95% of the energy associated with the production of virgin metal; and for steel the equivalent figure is 75% – this all adds up to tremendous savings in the can manufacture process. What’s more, less than 150,000 tonnes of metal is needed each year to produce the 9.628 billion cans filled in the UK – this is a tiny fraction of the metal available in the UK.

The recycled metal from drink cans is a truly renewable material, retaining the same characteristic as the original material. Indeed, metal is forever. This is in stark contrast to other packaging materials – paper, board and plastics – where recycled material is a lower quality, having lost some of its original properties.

From can to can in 60 days

The infinite life of steel and aluminium means that once a can is recycled it could be back on the shelves as a new can in as little as 60 days. With around 38 million cans recycled in the UK each week, that’s an impressive turnaround. Every can recycled substantially reduces the footprint of the next can made, because most of the environmental impacts of the beverage can – carbon, energy use, emissions, effluents and wastes – relate to the initial supply of metal itself, which isn’t needed for recycling. The industry has successfully reduced manufacturing emissions in recent years, with steel manufacturing now producing 50% less emissions than in the 1970s and the majority of power supplied to aluminium smelters being derived from renewable hydro-electric projects. The metals industry continues to invest in reducing its environmental impact even further.

Targets and recycling rates

The EU directive targets set through the Packaging Waste Directive for metal packaging is currently 50%. The industry has seen a substantial increase in can recycling rates in recent years; the current recycling rate for beverage cans in the UK is around 60% – an impressive jump from just 2% in 1989. This is thanks in large part to the commitment of the metal packaging industry, investing in programmes like MetalMatters – boosting performance of kerbside collection programmes and Every Can Counts – encouraging consumers to recycle drinks cans “away from home”.

The Government has recently set new business recycling targets which will see aluminium increasing from a target of 40% (2012) to 55% and steel from 71% (2012) to 76% by 2017.

Recycling cans saves millions of pounds’ worth of energy each year. The price paid for scrap metals collected more than covers the cost of collection. Because cans are infinitely recyclable and will become cans or other metal products, the industry makes substantial materials savings by not having to use new materials to produce them. Recycling cans makes sense from every direction.

Recycling Initiatives

There are several cost-effective ways to collect drinks cans for recycling. The variety of methods available means that they are easy to collect.

Kerbside

As the UK Government increases its household waste recovery targets, kerbside ‘recycling box’ or ‘recycling bag’ schemes operated by local authority contractors are now available to around 95% of UK homes.

Bring Schemes

With thousands of can banks or multi-material banks collecting cans across the UK, ‘bring’ schemes play an important role in supporting local authorities’ recycling strategies.

Eddy Current Separation

Eddy Current Separation (ECS) is used to extract aluminium from a mixture of ferrous and non-ferrous materials and is often used at Materials Recycling Facilities (MRFs). Unlike ferrous metals, such as steel, it is not possible to extract aluminium from waste using conventional magnetic extraction.

Magnetic Extraction

Magnetic recovery is the most efficient and cost effective way of extracting steel packaging from non-sorted domestic waste, achieving recovery rates of up to 85%.

Magnetic Recovery at EFW Plants

Conventional magnetic extraction technology at Energy From Waste (EFW) plants recovers steel packaging present in the domestic waste stream after the incineration of domestic waste.

Out of Home Recycling

Every Can Counts

A challenge to increasing metal recycling rates further is the fact that almost one third of all beverage cans are consumed away from the home and are rarely recycled. Every Can Counts was introduced in 2008 as an ongoing programme to make “on-the-go” can recycling easier. The programme is funded by Can Makers, Beverage Can Makers Europe, and the aluminium and steel packaging and recycling industry.

So far thousands of individuals and scores of businesses have got involved, ordering starter packs from the Every Can Counts website and setting up special collection points in workplaces, shopping centres and other public areas.

As well as working with employers such as the ASDA, NHS, Every Can Counts has built a strong presence at summer music festivals and with the National Union of Students.

Metal is forever and cans don’t just become other cans when recycled. They can be used to make a variety of different metal products, including phones, mp3 players, clocks and watches.