Does aluminum solve all packaging issues? No, says Claudia Bierth, European Sustainability Manager at Ball Beverage Europe. What we can nevertheless learn from the aluminum can. And why design for recycling is so crucial.
Why the circular economy needs new parameters
ALUMINIUM: Ms. Bierth, when it comes to recycling, the packaging industry is very much in the public eye. Can it serve as a role model?
Claudia Bierth: At least it sends strong signals to other sectors as to where the journey should go. However, there is also clear legislation here in many places on how to collect and deal with resources after use. And you have to admit: It is of course easier with FMCG than with applications that are in use for years or decades.
And the aluminum can? That's the prototype for recycling.
Bierth: That's right. This is mainly due to the excellent recyclability and value of the material, which is in high demand, even in regions without established collection systems. Added to this are single-use deposit systems in some countries, which have contributed to the fact that the recycling rate in Europe is already over 76 percent.
When you talk about the circular economy, is it a problem that all eyes are on recycling?
Bierth: No, that is of course a core aspect of the circular economy. But clearly, it's about more than that: How can products be kept in the economy as long as possible beyond a life cycle, so that the value of the materials used can also be retained as far as possible? The material which is used plays a central role here.
Aluminum performs very well here.
Bierth: As a permanent material, aluminum is predestined for the circular economy. This is because the quality of the material is not affected by recycling, and its inherent properties remain the same. An important question is: What losses occur during recycling? Losses occur with any material; aluminum also oxidizes during remelting. But while losses for aluminum cans are in the low single-digit percent range, losses for other materials are in the multi-digit range. In terms of the circular economy, these values are decisive, since they increase per cycle and strongly influence how much material can be retained in the economy. Especially in the case of packaging, the topic of design for recycling also plays an important role.
Claudia Bierth is European Sustainability Manager at Ball Beverage Packaging Europe. She is an advocate for the circular economy with over 20 years’ experience providing expertise in sustainability, stakeholder engagement, policy and communications in Germany, North America, and India for large multinationals, non-profits, SMEs and the public sector. At Ball, she leads European Affairs in Brussels as well as Sustainability and Public Affairs in Central Europe.
What must this design look like?
Bierth: It should simplify sorting after collection as much as possible; the sorting technology must also be able to recognize the materials in the product. With aluminum beverage cans, this is very simple: Here, no materials have to be separated, and there are no labels, lids, caps or anything like this. It is particularly difficult with composite packaging made of different materials, which can hardly be separated from each other and therefore often end up in incineration or even landfill.
Sometimes marketing decisions also make detection by optical sorting systems difficult. Black or opaque plastic, for example, is hardly recognized and is then not recycled.
Is this an appeal for everything to be packaged in aluminum?
Bierth: No, it's an appeal to set new parameters for the circular economy - towards true circularity.
What parameters are you thinking of?
Bierth: Recently, for example, the high recycled content of individual brands of plastic bottles has often been emphasized. My point is: That's an important screw to adjust, but it's about systemic changes within the industry and not just about recycled content of certain individual products. The fact that a package contains recycled material does not mean that it will itself be recycled. That's a truncated discussion, which of course is easier for the end consumer to understand - '100 percent RPET', that feels good. But we need a holistic approach.
What does that mean?
Bierth: It means that everything that is put on the market should be collected again, sorted and either recycled or reused. And this should be done with as little loss of quality and quantity as possible, so that these secondary materials can then be used again in products of the same value - and not just once, but again and again. A perfect cycle, so to speak.
How satisfied are you with the recycling rates for aluminum beverage cans?
Bierth: Things are already looking relatively good for cans. For example, the recycling rate in Germany is an incredible 99 percent. In Brazil, we manage a recycling rate of 97 percent thanks to the informal sector. But in the rest of Europe and worldwide, we still have to improve. The recycling rate is the biggest lever for reducing the CO2 footprint of the can. In the case of aluminum, recycling can save about 95 percent of the energy needed to produce primary aluminum. Therefore, we need to get as close as possible to the 100 percent recycling rate. The difference in the impact on the can's carbon footprint between collection rates of 90 to 95 percent and 95 to 100 percent is exponential. That's why this year, with our association Metal Packaging Europe, we unveiled a roadmap for 100 percent recycling rates for aluminum beverage cans by 2030.
"Everything that is put on the market should be collected again, sorted and either recycled or reused. And this should be done with as little loss of quality and quantity as possible."
Beverage cans have become increasingly thin-walled in recent years and decades. Is lower mass good per se?
Bierth: No. In the case of aluminum cans, weight reduction is indeed still a screw to adjust for optimizing the CO2 footprint - despite the enormous successes of recent decades. But the trend toward perpetual light weighting in packaging without considering recyclability may have helped the carbon footprint, but certainly not the circular economy.
Give me an example?
Bierth: Think of high-quality wet food for animals, for example: here, stand-up pouches made of several layers of material are being used more and more frequently instead of cans, but they are difficult to recycle. The Commission is currently revising the requirements for packaging on the EU market - and this is no longer just about minimizing weight, but also about recyclability.
In this context, would you generally like to see stronger intervention on the part of policymakers?
Bierth: Political frameworks are generally very important for the industry, as they provide planning security. They are particularly important for the climate and recycling targets we have. However, they have to be based on scientific evidence and after careful impact assessment.
In the wake of the microplastics debate, for example, the Commission has banned the sale of plastic drinking straws. Do we need more of them?
Bierth: I don't think bans are always the best remedy. The industry is very good at developing solutions that work and are efficient - and that are also received by the market. What we need are frameworks that set the direction but leave companies enough room for innovation. In my view, the worst regulations are those that keep changing - because this is usually a sign that you have set a framework too narrowly and have not sufficiently examined consequences and interactions.
The interview was conducted by Bernhard Fragner.