Closed ‘can-to-can’ recycling loop may not be best for aluminium aerosols

A closed 'can-to-can' recycling loop does not deliver the best environmental and economic performance for aluminium aerosols, according to new research.

Demands for increasing recycled material content in packaging and recycling in a closed product loop are gathering momentum in the industry. The question raised in a new study is whether such a closed product loop recycling is advantageous, environmentally and economically, for aluminium aerosols, compared to a closed material loop approach.

The International Organisation of Aluminium Container Manufacturers (AEROBAL) and the European Aluminium Slug Producers group (ASP), organised under the umbrella of the German Aluminium Association (GDA), commissioned the Swiss research institute Carbotech to investigate into the subject.

Multitude of alloys and scarcity of recycled aluminium are ‘major challenges’

The study shows there is not just one aluminium specification but different aluminium alloys for the production of tailor-made aluminium products with different properties. After recycling, the use of the recycled material can be more suitable than primary aluminium for certain applications, if already existing alloying elements in the recycled aluminium support the required specifications.

It must also be taken into account that today, demand for recycled aluminium is much higher than supply. Roughly 25% of the global aluminium demand can be satisfied by recycled aluminium. Therefore, a focus on the recycled content has no direct influence on the global environmental impacts but only on the distribution to the different applications.

Closed product loop for aluminium aerosols requires additional transportation, sorting and melting

Economically and environmentally, the focus on a closed aluminium product loop in the overall global market need not be an advantage in itself, according to the research. In specific cases where aluminium scrap with the acquired properties can be found without huge efforts, it could be beneficial. However, higher distances for scrap transportation, additional sorting and melting steps with ensuing higher material losses in a closed product loop system increase adverse environmental impacts.

Aside from negative environmental effects, these system-related characteristics deteriorate the economic performance of a closed loop recycling system for high-purity aluminium aerosol cans, because it would lead to a higher cost per container.

Efficient collection and sorting as prerequisite for successful recycling

Dr Fredy Dinkel of Carbotech said: “The best strategy is to focus on high collection and sorting rates to maximise the amount of aluminium that stays in the market, in the sense of a closed material loop. Thus, recycling rates should be further increased because they sustainably reduce the environmental burden, irrespective of the application the recovered material will flow into.”

The EU Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), among others, aims at promoting extended producer responsibility systems in Europe. These measures also boost investments in sophisticated collection and recycling technologies, ensuring a higher quantity and better quality of the sorted and recycled aluminium packaging.

Since consumer education is also key to successful packaging collection and recycling, tailor-made campaigns throughout Europe could also contribute to better national recycling results, the study suggests.

All these efforts would contribute to efficiently closing the material loop for aluminium for optimum environmental and economic performance.

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