Steel for packaging in the circular economy

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2017

As the recycling rate continues to rise, Alexis Van Maercke* considers the role steel for packaging can play in the transition towards a more circular economy in Europe.

The production of steel can be traced back several thousand years. More recently, steel cans revolutionised food packaging and since canning technology came of age in the 20th Century, the can has provided a safe, effective and affordable means of preserving food and vital nutrients.

While new packaging formats have been developed since its invention, the can has endured. In the last three decades, however, there has been a significant shift not only in the way people work, communicate and shop, but also in attitudes towards environmental issues. 

Despite the arrival of other materials, steel for packaging, and the steel can, will remain centre stage for years to come. Steel is relevant to brand owners looking to protect and promote their products with a proven packaging format that consumers like and trust.

Switching from a linear approach

Moving from a linear approach to a circular economy is a concept that is supported by the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging (APEAL) and the wider steel industry, as it represents a step towards achieving higher recycling rates and creating jobs and savings for businesses that will benefit from greater resource security. This, in turn, will deliver improved economic sustainability. 

The Waste Framework Directive (WFD) and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) are two major pieces of legislation that are key to the successful implementation of the EU Circular Economy Package (CEP).

Earlier this year, the European Parliament voted in favour of a certain number of amendments to both pieces of legislation – notably recognition of the concept of multiple recycling – and a common methodology for data collection and processing was adopted.

The EU Council, which represents the 28 member states, has since agreed a mandate to negotiate with the European Parliament and the European Commission. It is expected that the three institutions will come to a final agreement at the beginning of 2018.  

Implementing the CEP as soon as possible will bring numerous benefits, including a harmonised EU approach, greater legal certainty and a more viable internal market for waste. 

Closing the loop on recycling

The latest figures – using data from 2015 – published by APEAL show the recycling rate of steel packaging in Europe at a new all-time high of 77.5%, confirming steel as the continent’s most recycled packaging material for the 11th consecutive year. 

That means over 2.7 million tonnes of steel have been recycled and will be available for the manufacture of new products – the circular economy in action. It is also indicative of the continued increase in the performance of steel packaging recycling.

The magnetic properties of steel make it easy and economical to recycle, as there is no need for a specific sorting process. As a permanent material, steel can also be recycled continuously, without loss of quality. 

Scrap is also an inherent part of the production process, meaning that steel plants are also, effectively, recycling plants, saving resources, energy and reducing emissions. A tonne of recycled steel saves over one and a half times its weight in CO2 emissions, over twice its weight in raw materials and uses 70% less energy than producing steel from virgin sources, according to APEAL figures.

Considering that the top five steel packaging recycling countries in Europe average over 90% recycling between them, it is clear that, by sharing best practices, the long-standing industry objective of 80% steel recycling by 2020 is achievable. However, this is only to the extent that industry continues to measure the real recycling rate – in other words, the recovered materials that are actually sent to the recycling plant.

APEAL has long taken the view that all EU member states should expand their efforts to reach higher recycling targets for all packaging materials. Waste is a resource whose recovery and reinjection into the EU economy contributes to resource efficiency and emissions reduction, as well as representing another step forward to a truly circular economy. 

A permanent solution

Sustainability, however, is a complex issue. The industry must continue to drive understanding among consumers of the merits of recycling and the unique benefits of infinite recycling offered by permanent materials, such as steel.

In 2012, the European Parliament voted to categorise steel alongside other metals in a new resource category of permanent materials. 

This effectively recognised the positive role of these, alongside the existing resource categories of renewable and non-renewable. 

More recently, a detailed and precise categorisation of packaging materials has been identified by the Swiss consultancy Carbotech, together with an expert group from the metal packaging sector. 

The 2015 Carbotech study examined the chemical and physical properties of a material to help define what is permanent and non-permanent. The research also elaborated on the differences between materials that lose their inherent properties or degrade when recycled and materials that do not. As a permanent material, steel can be recycled infinitively, meaning that today’s food can could be tomorrow’s car, stadium or computer.

Life cycle thinking – creating a clear record of a material’s environmental profile over its entire lifetime – gives businesses and brands the full picture, allowing them to assess quality.

The data for tinplate and steel cans reveal the continuous improvements being made across the sector. This is due to rising recycling rates, continuous improvement in unit lightweighting and increased amounts of green energy used for the packaging manufacturing process.

Since 2006, APEAL has established and communicated a comprehensive life cycle analysis (LCA) for tinplate production in Europe. The latest figures use data collected from 2012/2013 and indicate continuous improvements in a range of areas, including a 12% reduction in CO2 emissions from production since 2006, linked to a 2% drop in energy usage and increased recycling rates.

Market drivers

In an increasingly competitive market place, new demands are placed upon packaging materials – steel is no exception and the industry has responded with technical innovations leading to thinner steels which, when combined with the high formability and ductility, creates the possibility for unique and sophisticated can designs.

Can makers are also using steel in an ever-widening range of formats and sizes, and implementing new decorative techniques to achieve attention-grabbing designs across a wide range of markets, from food items to luxury products such as spirits and perfumes.

In addition, brands are using techniques such as embossing and debossing, often combined with matt lacquers applied to high gloss cans, to create packs that engage shoppers. The way in which polished steel reflects light to create a high-quality appearance is an additional consideration.

Versatility and sustainability aside, all packaging materials have an important role to play in another global challenge – the fight against food waste.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a third of all food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted every year. In Europe, the 2016 FUSIONS EU report estimates this to be around 88 million tonnes, amounting to €143bln.

The challenges vary in different economic regions. In developing countries, most food loss occurs during the handling and storage phase. Elsewhere, notably in Europe, it is focused on retail and the home. 

What future for steel?

Achieving a truly circular economy was always an ambitious goal, but progress is being made and the coming years will no doubt see the steel for packaging sector move to an ever more integrated approach between agricultural producers and retailers.

Meanwhile, research on the relationship between quality indicators for raw materials and those for finished products will drive improved production guidance, help to limit food waste and, ultimately, deliver even higher quality products to the consumer.

It is clear that helping manufacturers, brands and retailers understand the benefits offered by permanent materials such as steel, as well as the role they will play in reducing waste, is vital. Moreover, the environmental credentials will become part of the conversation as all players within the supply chain look to meet the obligations of a circular economy and achieve a more sustainable future.

From the first cans that revolutionised sailors’ diets and ended the problem of scurvy, to a packaging format that is set to support the successful implementation of the CEP, steel for packaging, it could be said, has truly come of age, if not full circle.

*Alexis Van Maercke is the Secretary General at APEAL. Before joining the organisation he was policy officer at the European Commission, Directorate General Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs.

APEAL, the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging, is a federation of the four major producers of steel for packaging – ArcelorMittal, Tata Steel, thyssenkrupp Packaging Steel, U.S. Steel Košice. Founded in 1986, it represents about 95% of the total European production of steel for packaging.