Aluminium can recycling boost announced at Resourcing the Future

Three out of four aluminium cans were recycled in the UK in 2018, a rise of three per cent since 2017.

The news was announced by Rick Hindley, Executive Director of the Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation (Alupro), at the Resourcing the Future conference this week (12-13 June), an event that brings together policy-makers and industry stakeholders to discuss the direction of the UK’s waste and resources strategy.

Crushed and baled aluminium cans

75 per cent of aluminium cans sold in the UK in 2018 were recycled, compared to 54 per cent in 2010. In total, 52 per cent of all aluminium packaging was recycled in 2018, up one percentage point on the previous year. Notably, Hindley revealed, 2018 represents the first year that more than 100,000 tonnes of aluminium packaging were recycled, with 100,141 tonnes in total collected for recycling. Of that figure, he said, 95 per cent was kept within the UK and Europe for reprocessing.

In fact, Hindley suggested that this recycling rate could be being underreported, not least because there is packaging waste that changes hands outside of the official reporting system of Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs), which must be purchased by producers over a certain size to prove that they have recycled their material at end of life. Companies handling less than 50 tonnes of packaging are not required to purchase PRNs.

In addition, aluminium that misses out on official recycling channels and instead goes into residual waste may also end up being recycled. Aluminium can be recouped from incinerator bottom ash (IBA), a by-product from the energy-from-waste industry produced after residual waste is burned. Aluminium pieces from IBA are sent for recycling but not counted in reportage of recycling rates.

Despite this, aluminium is one of the big recycling success stories namely because it is infinitely reusable, with no loss of quality. “Recycling aluminium makes good economic sense,” Hindley stressed at the conference, noting that it is cheaper for manufacturers to make cans from recycled material than it is for them to use raw materials, due to the costs of the mining, extracting and refining process.

Much success, Hindley said, has come from targeted communications campaigns such as Alupro’s Metal Matters programme, first piloted in 2010, which runs in more than 90 UK local authorities to educate residents about the importance of recycling aluminium packaging. Every Can Counts, another Alupro-managed campaign, focuses on aluminium recycling in the workplace.

At Resourcing the Future, Hindley affirmed his belief that the UK can achieve an almost 100 per cent recycling rate for aluminium packaging, ballasted by reform to the UK’s packaging producer responsibility system. In its Resources and Waste Strategy, published in December 2018, the government proposed implementing an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime for packaging, which would see producers pay 100 per cent of the costs of collecting and managing their waste.

A report published in March 2019 by think tank Green Alliance – represented on a panel with Hindley by Senior Policy Adviser Libby Peake – said that the EPR proposal, if implemented alongside other reforms, could help to boost aluminium recycling rates to 97 per cent.

The other reforms required, according to Green Alliance, include those also proposed by government: a consistent set of materials to be collected by councils, and an ‘all in’ deposit return scheme (DRS) to collect beverage containers. Investment in new and quality sorting technology is also needed to separate the maximum amount of aluminium from mixed waste, while more aluminium needs to be recovered from incinerator bottom ash.

Hindley was less positive about the need for a DRS, stating that while the measure could add a possible five per cent to aluminium recycling rates, it would come with additional costs “passed from producers to consumers”. In Scotland, a DRS with a 20 pence deposit has been proposed, something Hindley expressed concerns about, suggesting that consumers could potentially switch away from multipacks of cans to buying larger plastic bottles, in order to avoid higher deposit charges. 

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