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Why it’s time to talk about drinks cans

It is not surprising to read that consumers are still confused about what plastic packaging they can or can't recycle, especially when there is no consistency in the message provided to households. What was a surprise to us was to see instances where aluminium drinks cans were shockingly listed as being non-recyclable by some media. This misinformation causes even more confusion for consumers who want to play their part by choosing more sustainable options. It’s also damaging to the industry that has been promoting sustainable packaging for decades.

Let’s set the record straight: aluminium drinks cans are the most recycled beverage container in the world! A study by Recycling Resource Systems confirmed the global weighted average recycling rate for aluminium is 69%, compared to PET at 43% and glass at 46%. Cans are currently being recycled into new products every day. For example, the next drinks can you buy could have been another drinks can just 8 weeks prior to that, or even part of a car.

We already recycle an impressive 72% of aluminium drinks cans in the UK and as much as 94,000 tonnes of aluminium packaging was recycled last year alone (Alupro). Provisions to collect drink cans at kerbside is available through all UK local authorities. Because metal is a permanent material, even if it isn’t collected correctly for recycling, it can still be recovered from incinerator’s bottom ash.

It’s important to pay attention to these recycling rates as they tell the real story of a pack’s sustainability credentials. It’s something the metal industry is serious about. We have been quietly working to improve our rates for decades and have never stopped. Currently, we and the rest of the European metal packaging sector have gone beyond official government targets and set our own goal of reaching and exceeding an average 80% metal packaging recycling rate by 2020. The new Alupro commissioned report, goes even further than this and states that an 85% UK recycling rate can be achieved for aluminium drinks cans in just two years, simply based on the existing systems. Proposed deposit schemes would only bring marginal improvements to this.

What’s behind metal’s recycling success?

Metal is a permanent material and infinitely recyclable by its nature. Aluminium is energy intensive to produce, yet once in circulation it can be recycled again and again, without any loss of quality. The metal’s properties do not change during use, despite repeated recycling into new products. It doesn’t require the addition of new primary material or additives either to restore its properties (Carbotech). In fact, it is estimated that 75% of all aluminium ever produced in the world is still in use today (World Aluminium).

Aluminium packaging is easy to sort and extremely cost effective to recycle as well because of its high intrinsic value, which makes the recycling infrastructure self-funding. We have more than enough capacity here in the UK to be able to reprocess every can on the market into new products. There’s no need to wait for new technologies or rely on the infrastructures to be put in place – it’s already there.

It’s time for the packaging industry and companies to bring drinks cans to the forefront of their sustainability discussions and recognise them as the existing, successful recyclable solution for drinks. Cans will then no longer be the unsung hero of the packaging world: they are the sustainable drinks pack of choice available today.

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