It could be argued that the way the environment dominates current debate around aerosol markets is no different from any other packaging sector; but at January’s Aerosol & Dispensing Forum (ADF) show in Paris, it became clear there were specific factors making this market especially sensitive to sustainability concerns.
The section of the ADF conference dedicated to sustainability and recycling was introduced by the man responsible for global packaging R&D at Beiersdorf, Bernhard Felten. What, he asked the audience, was the environmental impact of aerosols?
“Nowadays, the aerosol can is mostly made of metal,” he said. “There is energy and water consumption. You are using up natural resources, the aluminium, the steel, the oil, and so on. There are emissions during use, butane, propane, and so forth. And at the end-of-life, we are left with the can, and currently we’re still in rather a linear economy.”
Many conference speakers and exhibitors at the show put forward their own strategies or proprietary technologies as a way of making this linear model more circular.
While the challenge from plastics aerosols is nothing new, their snapping at the heels of the tinplate and aluminium sectors is more insistent than ever. Despite poor public perception of plastics’ environmental performance, sustainability is, paradoxically, often where PET converters can most readily take the fight to the metals sector.
Acknowledging this, manufacturing director at aluminium aerosol specialist Ball Aerocan Jason Galley explained: “Sustainability is no longer a trend, but a condition of business. It’s also one of the main drivers of consumer choice.”
He underlined moves towards the circular economy model across Europe, in particular. “Regulation is going to demand that real recycling happens,” he said. Collection and recycling processes really have to work, and the output material has to have a high value.”
As Galley emphasised, the value of aluminium recyclate is, by definition, going to be high. “I’d go so far as to say it’s subsidised the recycling of other materials.”
Galley claimed that Ball’s ReAl lightweight aerosol can, introduced in 2014, had saved some 3,400 tonnes of aluminium globally since its introduction.Another barrier to higher recycling rates is the lack of public awareness, he added. Ball has been part of the Mist: Understood campaign in the US, which aims to raise awareness of the fact that aerosol cans are actually recyclable.
Galley was followed at the podium by Gilles Mangin, new applications leader in ArcelorMittal’s global R&D team. He stressed the importance of lightweighting. “There are many ways still to explore to dramatically reduce the weight of steel aerosols,” he stated.
“In terms of the wall thickness needed to resist internal pressure of 22.5 bar, the minimum gauge with aluminium is significantly thicker than with steel,” Mangin added.
“We calculate that our best-in-class can has a 59 per cent lower carbon footprint than a 100-per-cent-virgin-aluminium can,” he reported. “When the aluminium contains 25 per cent post-consumer recyclate, our steel can still has a 30 per cent lower carbon footprint.”
Lifecycle analysis contention
Carbon footprint calculations and lifecycle analyses (LCAs) loomed large as an issue behind many of the discussions at the Paris conference. PET converter and recycler Plastipak claimed its own analysis showed PET offered a better footprint than steel and “much better” than aluminium.
At Swallowfield, now part of the KDC One group, chief scientist Adrian McCretton provided some forecasts for the aerosol market up to 2025, once again putting an emphasis on recycling. “We will not be allowed to make any product that isn’t recyclable,” he said. “We have to start thinking about the end-of-life much earlier in the process.”
His view was that, in the years ahead, the consumer would play a much more active role in shaping – and providing feedback on – pack choices. “Consumers don’t have carbon footprint labelling, but they’re likely to want it soon,” he argued. “We’re going to be challenged to do thorough LCAs and do them more efficiently.”
Predictably, perhaps, Ball Aerocan’s Galley joked that, “There are lies, damned lies, statistics and LCAs,” alluding to the impossibility of recycling PET “forever”, while with metals this is theoretically possible.
Beiersdorf’s Felten pointed out that the complexity of LCAs was added to by the need to factor in the use of green energy.
The topic of refillable aerosols arose a few times, but more as a concept than a realistic possibility. Continuing his ‘linear’ versus ‘circular’ theme, Felten said: “A refillable aerosol would be nice, but would not be within the European Aerosol Federation’s (FEA’s) regulatory framework, which is based on a linear model.” In other words, refillable aerosols would require the development of an entirely new set of standards.
The focus on carbon footprint and recycling in the context of three competing materials types goes some way towards explaining the current heat of the debate around aerosol sustainability. But there are other urgent issues to resolve.
In his own presentation on the future of aerosols, head of product category development at L’Oréal Jonathan Gawtrey had most to say about changes to propellant gases. In particular, he focused on the need to reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and on the importance of minimum incremental reactivity (MIR) as a way of measuring the impact of those gases.
“We have just launched our first compressed-air variant in one of our ranges,” he added.
Out in the aisles
Away from the conference, on the Moravia Can exhibition stand, business development consultant Ezio Foresti pointed out that the much-discussed 3104 aluminium alloy used for Unilever’s high-profile, lightweight Dove aerosol can, which won The Canmaker Can of the Year in 2017, is only used on one of Moravia’s ten lines. While the Dove pack is produced using D&I techniques, the cans on its other lines are impacted extruded from MC2 alloy.
“Components such as zirconium in this alloy give the aluminium stronger mechanical properties, so you can lightweight more easily,” Foresti explained.
Some of the 3104 material which is still being used for the Dove aerosol can is also being used in beverage cans, said Moravia, which is part of Malta-based Unican International.
The Stolle Machinery stand featured The Canmaker’s Cans of the Year 2019 Gold award winner in the aerosol category, produced by DS Containers in the US for Procter & Gamble’s Gillette brand. Stolle’s equipment has contributed in no small part to this D&I canmaking success.
Stolle chief commercial officer Bob Gary said that the DS Containers line is currently running at 600 cans per minute (cpm). “We’ll be adding extra kit to get speeds up to 1,200cpm,” he explained.
He said Stolle would be keen to equip similar aerosol can plants in Europe. “It’s a tough market, because there’s a lot of extruded business out there,” he said. Gary added that this was the case, even though D&I outperformed monobloc canmaking emphatically in terms of production speeds.
Equipment of a very specific kind was presented on the Mühlbauer stand, where sales manager Matthias Zedler explained the Vision inspection system. “Our niche market is aerosols and tubes,” he said. “We offer a complete system, not only checking decoration but also shape: the necking, the shoulder and the top curl. No one else can do all of this on one machine.”
The system, which uses a combination of laser and camera technologies, along with a patented system of mirrors, can be installed to operate in either continuous or indexed mode.
The cost or value of any pack is always of critical importance. It will be interesting to see whether the increased emphasis on sustainable options means that the cost of aerosol cans – and other packaging – increases, and whether consumers are happy to help cover any additional cost.
In touch with aerosol cans
Visitors to the Crown Packaging Europe stand at ADF in Paris, could enjoy a literal ‘hands-on’ experience of the canmaker’s new tactile finish for its steel aerosol cans, as well as some new capabilities in coloured side stripes.
Samples of the tactile finish were on the stand in late January, even though the company only ran trials on the decoration in December.
“The effect can be achieved on any flat sheet metal,” said new product development manager Sarah D’Amato. “If there were challenges, they were probably to do with ensuring that the ink and varnish combined to achieve the desired effect.”
There was a lot of interest in the samples on display, said Crown, and a first commercial application is expected soon.
Meanwhile, the coloured side stripe on a red Brut deodorant aerosol can for Unilever demonstrated that current capabilities can go well beyond the black strips that have been provided in the past, said D’Amato. “There’s a lot of colour-matching technology involved between the coating and the printed colour,” she added.