As demand grows for aluminum cans in the United States and around the world, the Aluminum Association today released a new paper, Four Keys to Circular Recycling: An Aluminum Container Design Guide. The guide lays out how beverage companies and container designers can best utilize aluminum in its product packaging. Smart design of aluminum containers begins with an understanding of how contamination – particularly plastic contamination – in the aluminum recycling stream can negatively impact recycling operations and even create operational and safety issues.
“We are happy that more and more consumers are turning to aluminum cans as their preferred choice for carbonated water, soft drinks, beer and other beverages,” said Tom Dobbins, president & CEO of the Aluminum Association. “However, with this growth, we have begun to see some container designs that create major issues at the point of recycling. While we want to encourage innovative design choices with aluminum, we also want to make sure our ability to effectively recycle the product isn’t negatively impacted.”
The Container Design Guide explains the aluminum can recycling process and lays out some of the challenges created by adding non-removable foreign objects like plastic labels, tabs, closures and other items to the container. As volumes of foreign material in the aluminum container recycling stream grow, challenges include operational issues, increased emissions, safety concerns and reduced economic incentives to recycle.
The guide concludes with four keys for container designers to consider when working with aluminum:
- Key #1 – Use Aluminum: To maintain and increase the efficiency and economics of recycling, aluminum container designs should maximize the percentage of aluminum and minimize the use of non-aluminum materials.
- Key #2 – Make Plastic Removable: To the extent that designers use non-aluminum material in their designs, this material should be easily removable and labeled to encourage separation.
- Key #3 – Avoid the Addition of Non-Aluminum Design Elements Whenever Possible: Minimize the use of foreign materials in aluminum container design. PVC and chlorine-based plastics, which can create operational, safety and environmental hazards at aluminum recycling facilities, should not be used.
- Key #4 – Consider Alternative Technologies: Explore design alternatives to avoid adding non-aluminum material to aluminum containers.
“We hope this new guide will increase understanding throughout the beverage packaging supply chain about the challenges of contaminated recycling streams and provide some principles for designers to consider when working with aluminum,” added Dobbins. “Aluminum cans are tailor-made for a more circular economy, and we want to make sure it stays that way.”
Aluminum cans are the most sustainable beverage package on virtually every measure. Aluminum cans have a higher recycling rate and far more recycled content (73 percent on average) than competing package types. They are lightweight, stackable and strong, allowing brands to package and transport more beverages using less material. And aluminum cans are far more valuable than glass or plastic, helping make municipal recycling programs financially viable and effectively subsidizing the recycling of less valuable materials in the bin. Most of all, aluminum cans are recycled over and over again in a true “closed loop” recycling process. Glass and plastic are typically “down-cycled” into products like carpet fiber or landfill liner.