Aluminum beverage cans have been around since the 1960’s, though have fielded tough competition since the birth of plastic bottles and an ongoing fierce surge in plastic packaging production. But lately, more brands are switching to aluminum containers, and not just to hold drinks.
This two-part series dives into aluminum’s sustainability story. It tells what industries are turning to aluminum and why. Part 1 includes comments from ISRI, Ball Corporation, and others. In Part 2, Scott Breen, vice president of Sustainability, the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) and Matt Meenan, vice president of External Affairs, the Aluminum Association, detail the industry’s progress in cutting its carbon footprint and work to go further. And they respond to a McKinsey report that states plastic bottles’ overall greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are significantly lower than that of aluminum beverage cans.
About 85 percent of consumers make purchasing decisions with sustainability in mind according to research, and they especially care about packaging. More than half of shoppers say that what holds a product must be eco-friendly for them to believe in the product’s sustainability, reveals a large survey of The Packer. They want to know that it’s recyclable and, ideally, loaded with recycled content.
With this rising sensitivity, especially as headlines tell of plastic packaging’s low recycling rates, aluminum, touted as “infinitely” recyclable, is gaining traction. And it’s not just able to be recycled, but if it’s dropped in the bin, it actually does get processed. More than 60 percent of the aluminum making its way to U.S. mills comes from materials that reached the end of a previous life, by industry accounts.
The “magic” of metals that enables them to be reborn repeatedly is they don’t degrade or lose their chemical properties in the recycling process. What helps more is that collections and processing infrastructure are in place almost everywhere that recycling exists.
Some brands, large and small, are now switching to this nonferrous metal. And those who’ve been packing their goods in it for years continue to innovate, trying to raise the sustainability bar. They’re lightweighting cans; offering refillable containers—a very few offer customizable subscriptions to refills; some incorporate reusable pumps; and the like.
Among industries leading in the migration to aluminum are food service packaging, sellers of beer and bottled water and household and personal care products, as well as candle makers (most are converting from plastics; the latter is replacing glass).
Ball who started in the 1880s making glass jars has cranked out aluminum cans for decades. The packaging giant keeps adding on aluminum apps and technologies as more brands and their customers take to the belief that it’s better than alternatives.
“Aluminum packaging has endless opportunities for innovation, and it is important to us to adapt our current product offerings to fit the growing desire for sustainable options,” says Jay Billings, president, Ball Aerosol Packaging.
Among new concepts are an aluminum cup, sold at sports and entertainment venues and in retail, with up to 90 percent recycled content. Ball sells bottles to Boomerang Water that will be washed, sanitized, and refilled with filtered water.
And the corporation now makes lightweighted “Infinity” bottles from recycled content for personal care and household products, which Ball touts not only for their green attributes, but for functionality features like being shatterproof and safeguarding products from light.
In the aerosols space, near-future plans are to launch a second generation of its ReAl container technology, with 75 percent recycled content.
Bret Biggers, senior economist, ISRI, lays out both pros and cons of using recycled aluminum. Starting with the pluses: besides the material’s seemingly endless recyclability, creating a new aluminum can, bottle, or cup from recycled aluminum saves up to 95 percent of the energy required to manufacture them from virgin materials. And it saves CO2 emissions – up to 90 percent or more by industry accounts.
Biggers points to one drawback: other materials, laminated to aluminum to increase flexibility, reduce likelihood of recycling. Mixed alloys and coatings make recycling less efficient and sometimes prevent materials from being recycled altogether.
Still, aluminum packaging is making a comeback from when it first emerged before the plastic manufacturing surge—back in 1963 when Reynolds Metals Company debuted an aluminum drink container.
Some brands who believe embracing aluminum is good for the environment are finding it’s good for business too. Hand in Hand, among the first liquid soap makers to switch to aluminum, attributes this move in large part to its 1,000 percent growth in sales in each of the past couple of years.
Opportunities present themselves for recyclers and processors too.
“As with most metals, pricing is often higher, allowing for increased revenue,” Biggers says.
Recycled nonferrous metals only account for roughly 10 percent of the volume of all recyclables in the United States [packaging and other materials] but generate about half of the value in dollars due to their high per unit prices, he says.
Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) looking to cash in on this commodity need to spend up front, namely on eddy currents to separate nonferrous metals from the stream. Some are leveraging robotic sorters and electromagnetic metal sensors integrated with sortation technology to be able to identify and pull metals.
Still, for all its sustainability features, aluminum packaging comes with tradeoffs. It’s energy intensive to produce.
Recent research from McKinsey, comparing different materials and applications (including plastic containers and aluminum cans) reports that while aluminum cans are more recycled and more recyclable than plastic, their overall GHG profile is higher due to their weight and production-related emissions. In a comparison to PET bottles specifically, aluminum cans were reported to have two times the emissions.
Though the aluminum industry challenges this.
Matt Meenan, vice president of External Affairs, The Aluminum Association, argues that other studies find the life cycle carbon impact of aluminum beverage cans is “similar if not superior” to PET on a per ounce basis. He points to a life cycle analysis conducted by Sphera and sponsored by Ball and argues that renewable energy use in manufacturing, combined with increases in lightweighting and recycled content have lowered the carbon footprint of aluminum cans and continues to drive more reductions.
The carbon footprint of aluminum beverage cans in North America has dropped 41 percent since 2012, says Scott Breen, vice president of Sustainability, Can Manufacturers Institute, who echoes the Sphera study commenting reductions are driven largely by decreased carbon intensity of primary aluminum production, lighter cans (27% lighter per fluid ounce compared to 1991), and more efficient manufacturing.
Ball’s Billings says that using hydroelectric power in aluminum production generates 75 percent less CO2e emissions than the global average. Within its own operation, Ball aims to use 100 percent renewable electricity globally by 2030, with an interim target of 75 percent by 2025.
As with other packaging, consumers and brands who listen to them will likely drive the fate of aluminum containers moving forward.