Matching realism and ambition in aluminium recycling

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Aluminium can be recycled repeatedly without losing its original quality. [Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr]

Ambitious yet realistic targets for all packaging materials are essential to building a truly circular economy in Europe, writes Maarten Labberton.

Maarten Labberton is director for the Packaging Group at European Aluminium, a member of the Executive Committee of Metal Packaging Europe and a member of the European Steering Committee of Every Can Counts.

The European Commission’s Circular Economy Package sets the objective of recycling 75% of all aluminium packaging by 2025, and of 85% by 2030. This is a balanced and constructive approach, provided that all collection, sorting and recycling options are considered.

The European Parliament’s Environment Committee voted on 24 January in favour of a split target for aluminium packaging. However, the MEPs further increased the original targets for aluminium – as well as for several other materials – to 80% by 2025 and 90% by 2030.

As for the Council, the latest proposal from the Maltese EU Presidency keeps the split target but refers to much lower aluminium recycling percentages, of 30% and 50% for the same years.

In order to reap the full environmental and economic benefits of recycling, policymakers should agree upon a separate set of ambitious but realistic recycling targets for each material as proposed by the European Commission. The level of the target should remain realistic and build on the current performances of the member states.

Balanced recycling targets for packaging materials like aluminium would incentivise member states to further invest in better and more advanced collection and sorting technologies, addressing in particular the smaller packaging items and the ‘out-of-home’ consumed beverage cans. The combination of a higher yield of aluminium scrap and the relatively high value of used aluminium makes these investments worthwhile.

Policymakers should be careful not to give one material an advantage over another. This would go against the principle of material neutrality and would not make sense from an environmental point of view. In order to further close the loop and to maintain a level playing field, clear and balanced legislative recycling targets are needed for all materials: steel, aluminium, glass, plastics, paper and cardboard. The ultimate goal of the circular economy should be to phase out the landfilling and incineration of all recyclables. In this respect, a relatively low recycling target would send the wrong signal.

Aluminium and the circular economy

Of course, moving towards more credible recycling results requires efforts from the whole recycling value chain and the timeframe to 2025 – and 2030 – is relatively short. Moreover, considering the possible change of the calculation basis for measuring the recycling results to ‘input to the final recycling process’, several member states will need more time to increase their investments in new and modern sorting plants.

Policymakers could consider granting additional time to certain member states to achieve the same targets as originally proposed by the European Commission. This process was previously applied when the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive was revised in 2004. It enabled the same legal basis to be maintained, thus guaranteeing an optimal functioning of the internal market for packaging.

Hopefully member states will choose ambitious yet realistic targets that promote fair competition between packaging materials and uphold the aims of the circular economy.

Aluminium is already a key contributor to the circular economy. Thanks to its characteristics as a permanent material, aluminium can be recycled over and over without losing its properties. Today, more than seven out of ten aluminium beverage cans are recycled in Europe and this trend is on the rise. Not to mention that recycling aluminium saves energy. Recycling requires 95% less energy than during the primary production phase. A split target for aluminium packaging would encourage increased recycling, benefitting the environment and the economy.