The EU should foster true circular business models

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Roberta Niboli is CEO at Raffmetal and Vice-Chair of European Aluminium. [Raffmetal/European Aluminium]

This article is part of our special report Aluminium in a low-carbon world.

Aluminium is by nature a circular and thus permanent material: whether it’s in a car, a building or a  single beverage can, aluminium is fully and infinitely recyclable, maintaining its original properties no matter how many times it is processed and used. Furthermore, recycling aluminium saves 95% of the energy used in primary production and achieves an equivalent reduction in CO2 emissions. 

Roberta Niboli is CEO at Raffmetal and Vice-Chair of European Aluminium.

There is a strong recycling business in Europe with over 220 recycling plants, many of which are small and medium-sized enterprises and family-owned businesses. About 8 million tonnes of scrap is recycled in Europe each year, which includes process and run-around scrap. 

The European recycling industry has the potential to grow significantly. Our Vision 2050 report shows that in the coming decades, demand for aluminium will remain strong. With supportive policies for our sector by 2050, recycled aluminium and primary aluminium are expected to meet almost equal shares of total European aluminium demand, which is forecasted to reach around 18 million tonnes. 

We understand that this growth must go hand in hand with decarbonisation. With impressive aluminium recycling rates of over 90% in transport and building and about 65% in packaging, the European aluminium industry is already making a significant contribution to the circular economy. 75% of all the aluminium ever produced is still in use today. 

To achieve 100% recycling of all aluminium containing products, however, we must maximise the collection and improve the sorting of valuable resources from the end of life of products. EU legislation will have a significant role to play in realising this ambition In our recent I+ Manifesto, we have highlighted our main recommendations to policy makers. 

One flagship measure is to encourage smart design to make traceability, disassembly and recycling easier and more cost-efficient. Sorting should preferably be done by specific product and by alloy family. It implies higher investments in modern waste treatment centres, using the latest sorting technologies, including sensor-based and robot sorting systems.

The review of Waste Shipment Regulation is a golden opportunity to simplify the shipment of waste across the EU. One of the changes should be adding new green listed codes for waste where needed, for example for coated or uncoated windows, doors, curtain walls, and other framing profiles which mainly consist of aluminium and plastic. Bureaucracy should not provide additional hurdles for European recycling plants.

Europe should also find efficient ways to address the issue of scrap leaving the European Union. Around one million tonnes of aluminium scrap is exported to non-European countries, and around four million End of Live Vehicles (ELVs) per year are deregistered without a certificate of destruction, probably being illegally exported. The upcoming revision of the ELV Directive should fight against the illegal exports of ELVs by introducing an improved registration/deregistration system. It should also keep the focus on waste prevention and high recycling ambitions. Besides, to ensure high quality recycling, scrap exported out of Europe should be treated by recycling facilities complying with Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) standards equivalent to the ones we have in Europe.

Last but not least, the possible interface between chemical, product and waste legislation should ensure that the use of raw materials such as aluminium will not be jeopardised. Chemicals policy should prefer the risk-based approach rather than hazard as a measure of exposure. 

We expect the next European Commission to adopt a Circular Economy Action Plan 2.0 within the first 100 days of its mandate and hope to see our recommendations integrated into this new plan. Of course, there is also a clear role for our industry to further increase and optimise the recycling of aluminium through, for example, design for recycling, closer collaboration with the value chain and promoting the responsible use and consumption of aluminium whether from primary or recycled sources. All solutions that keep aluminium in the loop are worthwhile to consider because the metal we preserve today will likely remain in service forever.

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