Are Revised Beverage Can Recycling Targets Realistic?
Every year, consumers in the UK use approximately 14 billion steel and aluminium beverage cans. Of these, approximately 59% are presently recycled. In the March 2017 budget, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced new targets for 2020, with the metal packaging recycling rate rising to 69%. We investigate whether this 10% rise is really achievable?
Present Beverage Can Recycling Figures
Since the late 1980’s, there has been a huge change in the global attitude to waste and recycling highlighted by the fact that, in 1989, the UK’s beverage can recycling rate was just 2%. Globally, the beverage can is regarded as being the most recyclable packaging for drinks.
By the end of 2017, the UK will be recycling 55% of all aluminium packaging and 76% of steel. This is part of the 72.7% of all packaging used in the UK that will be recycled.
Using reported recycling rates for aluminium and steel beverage cans, it is estimated that 14.1 billion cans are produced each year, of which nearly 80% are aluminium. Of the 14.1 billion, 5.8 billion end up in landfill. It is believed that if all aluminium and steel cans were recycled in the UK, the number of green bins could be reduced by 17.5 million.
The reasons for need to recycle and reduce waste are mainly 3-fold:
- Reducing the amount of waste going to landfill;
- Reducing the amount of energy used to produce steel and aluminium (recycled aluminium uses 95% of the energy needed for virgin production and steel 75%);
- More efficiently using the planet’s dwindling resources;
How Can The New Targets Be Achieved?
Between 2014 and 2017, aluminium can recycling rates have increased by 9% (from 46% to 55%) and steel by 3% (from 73% to 76%). As recycling rates reach higher levels, previous statistical trends show that the recycling rate growth slows. The latest recycling targets (2020) are for a further 9% increase (to 64%) in aluminium and a 9% (to 85%) increase in steel.
Additionally, although these may be less relevant due to Brexit, in December 2015 the European Commission proposed targets of 65% of all packaging by 2025 and 75% by 2030. Of this, the recycling targets for aluminium and steel were the same at 75% in 2025 and 85% in 2030.
These are significant increases in the recycling rates. From trends over recent years, it is apparent that without significant changes in the way the UK recovers, handles, and recycles materials, the targets set by the UK government and those proposed by Europe will prove difficult to achieve.
Presently, there are several ways in which beverage cans are recovered including:
- Charity collection schemes, which commonly only collect aluminium due to the low prices for recovered steel cans. These only account for a small percentage of all cans recycled;
- At designated can banks, where the only subsequent processing is separating steel from aluminium using a Magnetic Separator. Again, this is a small percentage;
- From pre-sorted refuse, where households have segregated ‘recyclable’ waste into separate containers for processing in a Waste Sorting Plant. This is a more automated system, with steel cans being commonly recovered off a conveyor by an Overband Magnet and aluminium cans either being manually picked or automatically separated using an Eddy Current Separator;
- Automatically recovered from mixed waste, using Magnetic Separators and Eddy Current Separators. The source of the mixed waste includes:
- Cans incorrectly put in the mixed recyclable rubbish for waste collection by households;
- Waste collection from city centres;
- Industrial waste collection;
- Other waste sources
The challenge for the UK Government is identifying where improvements in can recovery can be made. Further automation and less reliance on the general public may be required.
There has been a government focus on recycling and waste reduction since the mid-1990s. In over 20 years, the aluminium recycling rate was only just exceeded 50%. The latest recycling targets ask for another 10% growth in just 3 years.
Also, given the present infrastructure of waste handling and recycling in the UK, achieving a recycling rate of 85% for any material will be difficult. Steel Cans have always been a primary recyclable product, but what changes are needed to boost the present rate of 76% up by a further 9% in 3 years when it has only grown by 3% since 2014?
Setting recycling targets is simple, but achieving them without a solid structured plan will be challenging.
Other relevant environmental articles:
- Plastics and the environment;
- The UK recycling landscape post election;
- Recyclable product design is vital to achieve future recycling targets;