Closing the loop

An aluminium beverage can with 100 percent recycled content could be a sustainability game changer for drinks manufacturers. John Gardner* explains how it could be achieved

It may be overly aspirational to suggest that ‘The aluminium beverage can is the most sustainable mass market container for carbonated beverages ever invented’ but it may also be an objective that is actually within our reach.

The aluminium beverage can definitely has the potential to become the most environmentally sustainable container for soft drinks and beer. But for that to happen, the industry needs to build collaborative partnerships to increase post-consumer recycling rates and increase the value from high recycled content of aluminium beverage cans with our stakeholders.

That’s the impetus behind commitment by Novelis to develop a beverage can made from aluminium sheet with up to 100 percent recycled content. Following that vision announced by Novelis chief executive Phil Martens in June 2012, the first commercially available product in that quest was launched less than a year later in May: ‘evercan’ aluminium can body sheet with 90 percent recycled content. This independently certified, high-recycled-content sheet makes it possible for canmakers to guarantee to their customers that their cans are made from at least 70 percent recycled aluminium.

The significance of this cannot be overstated. Novelis estimates that the current industry average recycled content is 40 to 50 percent. If the worldwide total consumption of 250 billion aluminium cans a year were made from 100 percent recycled the positive environmental impact would be significant. We would have a closed-loop production cycle for 2.5 million tonnes of aluminium that would save energy, preserve resources and ensure the viability of the aluminum can for decades to come.

This would strike a chord with consumers, who want to purchase sustainable products. There are a number of studies which point to consumers’ growing interest in sustainability of the products they purchase. Last year, Novelis conducted its own studies in Beijing, China; Denver, USA and Manchester, UK with approximately 100 consumers participating in 20 separate focus groups. They were asked about their views and interest in packaging recycling and recycled content. Participants were not only interested in the concept of packaging with higher recycled content, a significant number of consumers stated that their beverage purchasing decisions would be very much influenced by environmentally-responsible packaging, such as evercan.

So what does that mean for consumer beverage manufacturers? A lot, if you consider the challenges facing consumer products companies in today’s increasingly sustainability-conscious business environment. You only have to look to Wal-Mart’s industry-defining moves on the sustainability front – or more to the point, Coca-Cola’s – to see just how important a company’s carbon footprint has become.

Life cycle sustainability

A key point to consider is that a company’s carbon footprint consists of the sum of its own carbon footprint and that of its suppliers. That means that in addition to improving such key sustainability metrics as its own energy efficiency, transportation/supply chain efficiencies and water usage, beverage companies also have to consider the lifecycle sustainability metrics of the companies that supply major components of the end-product production and delivery. And that includes the consumer packaging of their products – whether they actively manage that packaging process or sub-contract it out to independent operators.

Coca-Cola is a good example. In a recent statement by Joe Franses, director of Corporate Sustainability for Coca-Cola Enterprises, the company noted that packaging accounts for 48 percent of the carbon footprint of the more than 12 billion bottles and cans it sells every week. Franses went on to say that reducing the carbon footprint of those containers is “absolutely fundamental to bringing that carbon footprint down”.

These facts have prompted Novelis to re-think the carbon footprint of the materials used to make its products. As part of this, two years ago it set a goal of having 80 percent of its input material come from recycled sources by 2020. In just two years, it has increased the recycled content of its products globally from 33 percent to 43 percent, and beverage can sheet has been a key driver in that progress.

To understand the challenges faced in increasing the amount of recycled metal in beverage cans, an appreciation of how aluminium beverage cans are made is vital. With the current technology, the can’s body and end are produced from two different alloys, with the end using 5182-series high magnesium content for added strength. End material is made from a much lower-recycled-content aluminium, whereas the body material – a 3104 series alloy containing manganese – is typically produced from a higher level of used beverage cans and some primary metal. During the recycling process, ends and bodies are melted together. As a result, primary aluminium has to be added to the mix in order to dilute the magnesium from the ends so that new body stock can be made. The result is a can that, on average, contains between 40 and 50 percent recycled material.

Novelis researchers are exploring a variety of ways to further increase the recycled content of its aluminium can sheet. This requires thinking beyond the status quo: what it calls ‘disruptive innovation’. A team based at the Novelis Global Research and Technology Center near Atlanta is studying techniques that challenge the current approach to how cans are made. They are exploring changes to both alloy specifications and the entire can engineering process in a quest to deliver an aluminium can with up 100 percent recycled content.

Of course, this cannot be achieved in isolation. Novelis is working closely with canmakers, brand holders and other supply-chain partners on this development work. Great progress is being made, and it is hoped to have a commercially-viable solution approaching 100 percent recycled content within the next few years.

As part of the Novelis goal to increase the recycled content in its products to 80 percent globally by 2020, it has been investing heavily in expanding capacity and capabilities in recycling to increase its recycling and casting capacity to 2.1 million tons by 2015. A few examples include:

• Construction of what will be the world’s largest recycling center at Nachterstedt, Germany.

• Opening of Asia’s largest beverage can recycling centre last year in South Korea.

• Construction of a state-of-the-art recycling line in Brazil and the establishment of a network of used-can collection centres within the country.

Novelis now has the global volume and scale to offer a high-recycled-content can sheet to customers around the world. It is also putting systems in place to manage this globally-integrated recycling infrastructure to provide the kinds of supply chain tools necessary to be able to trace high-recycled-content as part of a standard certification process through the Novelis system.

In conjunction with the development of the long-term vision of a 100 percent recycled content can, Novelis has also been working on increasing the amount of recycled metal used in cans today.

Initially, Novelis is offering aluminium can body sheet guaranteed to contain at least 90 percent recycled content. When combined with the can end during the canmaking and filling process, the Novelis evercan will enable drinks companies to market their products in standard 12oz aluminium cans that are independently certified as being made from a minimum of 70 percent recycled content.

Three of Novelis’ recycling facilities – Berea, Greensboro in the US and Latchford in the UK – have been certified by SCS Global services, a trusted leader in third-party environmental, sustainability and food quality certification, auditing, testing and standards development. By the end of 2013, Novelis plans for its recycling centers at Pinda, Brazil; Yeongju, South Korea; and Oswego, US to be also certified to produce evercan canstock.

To guarantee the integrity of recycled content claims, the entire supply chain at Novelis was reviewed, audited and certified by SCS. This began from the point of sourcing UBCs; to the preparation and remelting process in recycling centres; and later following each ingot and coil through the process and ultimately shipping to canmakers and later to brand holders for filling. Novelis has the ability to trace the full chain from end-to-end to ensure that consumers can be certain the aluminium cans they are purchasing contain high-recycled-content. The process will be regularly audited by SCS to review documentation and traceability to ensure it continues to meet the rigorous standards.

This first phase of the Novelis evercan high-recycled-content initiative serves as a catalyst for the company to work more closely with consumer brand owners, its supply chain partners and other community stakeholders to increase end-of-life recycling of used beverage containers. Novelis encourages wide participation from other aluminium suppliers, beverage and packaging companies, retailers and distributors, recyclers, municipalities, environmental groups and consumers themselves in promoting the use of more sustainable consumer packaging through aluminium recycling.

* John Gardner is vice president and chief sustainability officer at Novelis Inc, the world-leading aluminium canstock manufacturer based in Atlanta, Georgia.