Aluminium cans hit the right note

Glastonbury music festival in the UK announced recently that the sale of drinks in plastic bottles will be banned this year. They are to be replaced by cans. This decision was taken at the request of their partners Greenpeace, who are campaigning to reduce plastic pollution. Yet, in a closed system like an event, it is straightforward to achieve the high recycling rates needed to keep packaging out of the environment. Indeed, Glastonbury claims that 40 tonnes of PET bottles were recycled at the last festival. So what are the reasons behind the change?

Perhaps it is down to simple economics; the high value of waste aluminium cans will pay for the cost of sorting and transportation from the festival site, whereas that may not be the case for PET bottles. The captive audience will have no choice but to pay the higher price for aluminium packaging. Maybe the argument that aluminium is infinitely recyclable whereas plastic is not, is finally striking a chord.  The reality of plastic bottle recycling is often down-cycling to a lower grade use and ultimately incineration.

Whatever the reason, it is in tune with the experience of aluminium packaging manufacturers. Both Ball and Amcor recently reported increased sales. So others must be choosing aluminium packaging too.

European regulation is causing warning bells to ring in the head offices of companies using plastic packaging, which could be causing a rethink. The Circular Economy package will increase the responsibility of plastic producers to pay for recycling costs and infrastructure. Other Directives go further and require EU countries to charge for, or ban out right, certain plastic items that litter beaches. Added to this, France and the UK are proposing a tax on virgin plastic packaging. 

But although plastic is not part of the European Commission’s mood music, they have yet to provide guidance on which materials are regarded as ‘more sustainable alternatives’ to plastic within a circular economy. This means that companies and countries are making their own decisions on the best packaging materials. European Aluminium is arguing for recognition of the difference between materials that recycle without degradation, which it calls permanent materials, and those which deteriorate during recycling. There is an urgent need to characterise the recyclability of different materials. Key variables include the material and energy efficiencies, the capital and operating costs and the stability of the material. The choice of materials for the circular economy should be based on science and economics, so we are all acting in harmony rather than playing our own tunes.

Published: 6 March 19

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