Aluminum Accelerates Circularity in Beverage Industry

Infinite Recycling Makes Aluminum the Material of Choice for Beverage Brands and Stadiums

By Sara Axelrod, Director of Sustainability, Beverage Packaging North and Central America at Ball Corporation

Ball Corporation is developing and scaling an infinitely recyclable cup to eliminate waste created by single-use plastic containers at stadiums around the world. (Image courtesy of Ball Corporation)

The impact of the climate crisis is growing every day, and governments, businesses, and consumers alike are looking for innovative ways to minimize their environmental footprint. Amidst this landscape, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the environment and demanding meaningful action from the brands they love.

A key contributor to the climate crisis that needs to be addressed is packaging pollution. In fact, a recent report found that plastics are on track to create more emissions than coal in the U.S. by 2030.

As a result, there has never been a more important time to explore sustainable packaging options. With aluminum’s inherent sustainable qualities, canned beverages have exploded in popularity recently, with major beverage companies and innovative upstarts releasing new canned drinks across categories — from hard seltzer, to cocktails, to water, wine and more.

In fact, according to Credit Suisse, nearly 75% of all new beverages launched in 2021 were packaged in aluminum cans, compared to 30-40% of beverages over the last five years. This trend is unsurprising since aluminum is helping brands to tell their sustainability story, deliver a truly recyclable product, and meet their own sustainability goals.

Why aluminum?

With leading recycling rates, high levels of recycled content, and strong recycling infrastructure, aluminum is more likely than not to actually be recycled into a new product. Aluminum also has significantly higher rates of recycling collection than other beverage packaging materials. Because of these qualities, today more than 70% of the material used in aluminum cans is recycled into new products – almost double that of glass (34%) and plastic (40%), according to a new study commissioned by the International Aluminium Institute (IAI).

The study shows that, compared with aluminum cans, more glass and plastic bottles end up in landfills due to lack of collection. Furthermore, collection and recycling are not synonymous. So even after material is collected for recycling processing, the losses in the recycling system are three times higher for PET and glass bottles than for aluminum cans.

Aluminum also has the potential for continued innovation and improvement. In recent years, manufacturers have gained capabilities to produce more lightweight cans made of a higher percentage of recycled content. Additionally, manufacturers have achieved new standards of sustainability in their production of aluminum. For example, the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative (ASI) provides certification based on standards for responsible production and sourcing practices.

Aluminum and recycling go hand in hand

Of course, it is not enough that aluminum is recyclable, we also need to make sure that it truly gets recycled. To do that, it is vital we prioritize stronger recycling infrastructure.

Aluminum beverage packaging performs well in recycling systems around the world – from curbside collection to deposits to informal collection. Its collection is driven by aluminum scrap’s economic value, and cans are the most valuable material in the recycling stream, often subsidizing the collection of other substrates. In the U.S., for example, cans are 1 percent of the recycling stream by weight and 17 percent of the value.

The overall cost of collecting, sorting and recycling aluminum cans is the lowest of any beverage packaging material. Aluminum retains its value and quality during the recycling process, whereas other packaging materials are downcycled, eventually becoming waste or low value products. Unlike other substrates, aluminum is in high demand across industries and applications beyond packaging, which further incentivizing collection, sorting and recycling. In fact, the recycling infrastructure depends on aluminum because plastic and glass often have low or no value and do not pay their own way in most recycling systems.

Still, aluminum recycling has room for improvement, with important implications if executed on a wide scale. A new study entitled “Recycling Aluminum Cans Is Good Business” indicates that a substantial improvement of the U.S. aluminum recycling rate could provide benefits including generating $1.6 billion in economic activity through material sales, contributing 103,800 jobs in collection, sorting, and reprocessing to the U.S. economy, and keeping 1.3 million tons of materials out of landfills each year, among other advantages.

A real-world application for aluminum circularity

The debate on how to solve the packaging pollution crisis is a complicated one – but aluminum provides a simple solution that can take us one step closer to achieving it. By increasing our use of aluminum beverage packaging and always recycling afterward, we can move toward a truly circular economy, where materials can be – and actually are – used again and again.

For example, we have partnered with like-minded sports teams, concessionaires and venues to bring an infinitely recyclable cup to stadiums around the world. Ball Arena in Denver, for example, has eliminated more than 350,000 single-use plastic cups and bottles and is on pace to eliminate more than 1 million single-use plastic cups and bottles in 2022. Additionally, the cup is now made with 90% recycled content – the highest content percentage on the market – lowering its emissions footprint and showing the real-world benefits of aluminum as a widely used beverage packaging alternative.

About the Author

Sara Axelrod currently leads sustainability initiatives in North and Central America for Ball Packaging. Ball Corporation is developing and scaling the Ball Aluminum Cup with sports teams, concessionaires and venues to bring the infinitely recyclable cup to stadiums around the world. Learn more at www.ball.com/aluminumcups.

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