Aluminium recycling could double with new reforms, says Green Alliance

New reforms, including a deposit return scheme (DRS), could see aluminium recycling almost double if implemented, preventing around £50 million of wasted resources each year, according to a new report by environmental think tank Green Alliance.

The report, released today (11 March) and titled ‘Closing the loop: Four steps towards 100 per cent aluminium packaging recycling’, looks at the state of aluminium recycling in the UK and proposes a number of ways in which it could be boosted.

In 2017, the UK recycled 51 per cent of aluminium packaging, including 72 per cent of aluminium drink cans. Despite the high recycling rate for drink cans, the UK is still allowing £50 million of used aluminium packaging go to waste each year.

As part of the recently published Resources and Waste Strategy, consultations are currently open regarding the introduction of a DRS for beverage containers, extended producer responsibility (EPR), consistent collections and a plastics tax for plastic packaging containing less than 30 per cent recycled content.

Aluminium recycling could double with new reforms, says Green AllianceGreen Alliance’s report argues that reforms proposed in the consultations could see almost all aluminium packaging recycled, including drink cans, aerosols, food tines, trays and foil, and reduce the amount of wasted aluminium to just three per cent.

The most important finding in the report is that, to maintain quality, and therefore value, aluminium must be extracted from the waste management process as early as possible. It becomes increasingly more expensive and energy intensive to generate high-quality material the more it becomes mixed with other materials.

Aluminium can be endlessly recycled with very little loss of quality. Aluminium mining and primary production is an expensive, energy intensive and waste generating process. Using recycled aluminium minimises these impacts, and we should be choosing this route to be a greener UK.

Green Alliance’s report urges the government to take four specific actions to bring aluminium recycling to 97 per cent. These are:

  1. Introduce an ‘all-in’ DRS (66 per cent of aluminium): Any DRS introduced by the government should collect beverage containers of all sizes and all material compositions.
  2. Improve kerbside collections (11 per cent of aluminium): In order to capture remaining aluminium packaging, such as aerosols, foil and food tins, the government should standardise the current kerbside collection system and make sure these valuable sources of aluminium are collected from all homes across the country and recycled.
  3. Ensure best practice at sorting plants (11 per cent of aluminium): While it is preferable to separate aluminium at source, this may not always be possible. Investment should be made in sorting facilities in new machinery, like eddy current separators (which use a magnetic field to reprel and sort metals) and sorting robots, so that aluminium can be separated from mixed waste.
  4. Recover the remainder from incinerator bottom ash (IBA) (seven per cent of aluminium): Some aluminium is likely to still get through sorting system without being separated from other materials and may end up in incineration. In this case, the remaining aluminium can be recovered from the IBA left behind at the end of the incineration process.

Commenting on the report, Samantha Harding, litter programme director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said: “As the crazy days of burying or burning our finite resources come to an end, we can finally design proper collection systems that deliver high quantities of high quality resources. That’s why the only logical approach to a UK-wide deposit system is to include every bottle, can and carton.

“An ‘all-in’ system, universal in what it accepts, will be the most economically viable, the simplest for consumers to use, help create new jobs in a thriving recycling sector, and relieve struggling local councils of the huge financial burden of waste management by making those who produce these vast amounts of packaging rightfully liable for the costs of dealing with it.”

Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance, added: “The opportunity to review the whole recycling system does not come around often. We have a chance now to design a system that works for business, consumers and the environment. Getting it right for all materials – and not just plastic – will mean we can stop losing millions of pounds worth of materials to landfill or incineration.”

You can read the full report, ‘Closing the loop: Four steps towards 100 per cent aluminium packaging recycling’, on the Green Alliance website.

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