Recycled content is now a key metric for sustainable aluminium products

Recent announcements show how the aluminium industry is working to increase recycled content in its products. Novelis, a leader in secondary aluminium announced the new milestone of 61% recycled content across its products during the previous year.  And Rio Tinto has acquired 50% of Matalco, a large, recycled aluminum business to enhance its product offering. At the same time, ASI (Aluminium Stewardship Initiative) also acknowledged the growing conversation about recycled content but repeated its position that it does not currently include this metric within its sustainability Standards. 

The huge energy and carbon footprint savings from substituting primary by secondary aluminium is a key reason that this trend is going to continue. Another is the focus of EU regulators on targets for recycled content in packaging of all types which has brought this metric to the attention of the public. The term Circular Economy which encapsulates the recycling ecosystem, is also becoming widely known. 

Aluminium packaging in the form of beverage cans, aerosol containers and foil, is widely collected after use and recycled.  But then there are other sectors such as automotive, where cars have a long lifetime, but their production unavoidably generates a lot of process scrap. There is an ongoing discussion of exactly what types of process scrap should be counted as recycled. The current consensus is that scrap fed back into the same process by the same manufacturer should not count, but that pre-consumer scrap bought from another company should be counted. But what about process scrap fed into a different process by the same company? 

It is this sort of argument that is preventing ASI from allowing its logo to be associated with recycled aluminium. More importantly, ASI does not recognise any process scrap from a non ASI certified company as ‘sustainable’ and therefore it can’t be included in any ASI related claims or statements by its members. So, without any change in approach, members who purchase scrap from non-members would end up with a lower ASI percent recycled content claim than they might otherwise be able to make.

Other Sustainability Schemes have already developed recycled content Standards.  This includes FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), one of the earliest multistakeholder schemes on which a number of subsequent schemes, including ASI, are based. There is a FSC recycled label for products from at least 70% post-consumer materials, with the remaining 30% from pre-consumer waste. 

It seems certain that the momentum behind recycled aluminium will continue to grow. Hydro has been using its own branding, CIRCAL, for high recycled content products for a while now. The company announced earlier this year that the first aluminium profiles made with 100 percent post-consumer, recycled, aluminium have been delivered to the Innovationsbogen construction project in Germany. Increasingly companies will secure their own supply of post and pre-consumer raw materials, and like Rio Tinto will see acquisition or joint ventures as a good way to proceed. The polymer industry is going down the same route with supply agreements between resin producers and waste management companies becoming more common.

So how could the recycling ecosystem develop further to bring specialist alloys back into use and generally increase the collection of end-of-life aluminium? I have previously suggested that locations where low carbon primary aluminium production becomes uneconomic due to the high cost of renewable energy, could specialise in collection and recycling of scrap and post-consumer waste, to create new products from secondary aluminium. There is a view, however, that because pre and post-consumer wastes aren’t equally accessible in all locations, it is somehow not applicable to expect all companies to increase recycled content. But in a world where raw materials (including bauxite) are shipped all over the world, this view does not seem logical. 

The aluminium sector has operators who are raising the bar. Not for them, the recycling of old negative arguments. It would be good to have a sector wide Standard for recycled or circular content; without one, companies will continue to use their own brands and metrics. 

Published: 5 September 23

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