US Report: Aluminium can maintains position as most sustainable beverage package

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Aluminium cans in the US continue to outperform competitive packaging types on a number of key sustainability metrics. That is the key message of a newly released report by the Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI).

The new report – “The Aluminum Can Advantage: Key Sustainability Performance Indicators 2019” – finds that consumers recycle aluminium cans at nearly double the rate of glass or plastic bottles and that average recycled content for an aluminium can produced in the United States rose from 70 to 73%, compared to 23% for glass and 3% for plastic. In addition, the report found that the aluminium can scrap is dramatically more valuable than glass or plastic in the recycling bin. Because of this, aluminium effectively subsidizes the recycling of less valuable material in the recycling stream. The full report is available at www.aluminium.org/CanAdvantage.

The new study tracks a number of different sustainability “key performance indicators” for the aluminium beverage can including industry recycling rate, consumer recycling rate, recycled content and value of material. Taken together, these indicators provide an overall view of the sustainability performance of the can as a guide for consumers, customers, non-governmental organizations, policymakers and other stakeholders across the value chain. Key findings in the 2019 report include:

  • The industry recycling rate, which factors in used beverage container (UBC) imports and exports, remained basically steady in 2017 and 2018 at 63.3 and 63.6%, respectively. This exceeds the 20-year average industry recycling rate of 59.1% and is an indicator of the industry’s commitment to using recycled material in aluminium can production.
  • The consumer recycling ratefor aluminium beverage cans jumped nearly 5 points to 49.8% in 2018 from 45.1% in 2017. The 20-year average for the aluminium can recycling rate is 50.1%.
  • The average recycled contentof an aluminium can (last updated in 2014) rose from 70 to 73%, far exceeding rival packaging types such as glass and plastic.
  • The aluminium can remains by far the most valuable package in the recycling bin, with a value per tonne of USD1,317/t compared to USD299/t for plastic and a negative value of USD20/t for glass.

“For every 5% increase in consumer recycling (of aluminium), approximately USD100 million in aluminium value is saved from landfills,” said Robert Budway, president and CEO of CMI. “It is no exaggeration to say that the modern recycling system could not work economically without the contributions of aluminium.”

Multiple independent studies have concluded that aluminium is the only beverage container type in the recycling bin that generates a net profit for municipal recycling programs. For example, a study of the “Blue Box” curbside program in Ontario, Canada, showed that aluminium cans brought in USD290/t of material collected in 2018 (after costs) while glass and plastic cost the system money. Similarly, according to CalRecycle data, aluminium cans generate USD831/t collected in California’s bottle deposit system (after costs) while plastic and glass cost the system USD253/t and USD120/t respectively of material collected.

“The economic logic is simple – the more aluminium we can return back to the recycling stream, the healthier the overall system,” said Lauren Wilk, vice-president for Policy & International Trade at the Aluminum Association.

Each year in the US roughly 45 billion cans – more than USD800 million worth of aluminium – end up in landfills, the equivalent of eleven 12-packs of cans for every person in the United States. The aluminium can industry supports efforts to increase recycling through public education, advocacy for public policy to increase the quantity and quality of recovered aluminium and engagement with groups, including the Recycling Partnership, a multi-material non-profit working with local municipalities to measurably improve residential curbside recycling programs and infrastructure.

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