It’s forever in the circular economy

Metal Packaging Europe’s chief executive Leonie Knox-Peebles explains what her priorities are to Rick Pendrous

Leonie Knox-Peebles took over as chief executive of Metal Packaging Europe (MPE), the body representing Europe’s rigid metal packaging industry and primarily canmaking, in April 2019.

MPE acts on behalf of around 760 companies (90 per cent of which are small and medium-sized) that employ more than 180,000 people across the continent making almost 100 billion cans a year. MPE sees its goal as making metal the preferred choice for consumer and industrial packaging with the ‘Metal Recycles Forever’ logo as its beacon.

MPE boss Knox-Peebles says it is critical to make clear the benefits of metal packaging

Knox-Peebles has a background in law and European business and is a native speaker of both English and French. She grew up in Brussels and, having been to the European School in Uccle, has been part of the so-called ‘Brussels Bubble’ since her youth.

She has more than 20 years’ experience in EU advocacy and regulatory affairs, with a career mainly focusing on environmental and product-related legislation, which fall today under the umbrella of a ‘circular economy’. This is all about keeping resources in use for as long as possible, while extracting the maximum value from them, then recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of their service life.

Over the years, Knox-Peebles has also worked on trade- and food safety-related issues. The area of interest that has followed her all along her career, however, is packaging.

In the past two decades, she has worked for a prominent law firm specialising in environmental and food legislation as well as for a number of European industry associations, including the beverage carton industry (ACE) and the plastics raw material producers (PlasticsEurope), both the latter in EU advocacy roles.

Opportunities and challenges
The canmaking industry wants to ensure that metal packaging is a cornerstone of the circular economy in Europe, according to MPE.

With the 2018 Circular Economy Package, the EU presented a fundamental shift in packaging policy. The legislation calls for higher and real recycling rates, as well as for products to be designed for circularity.

These key legislative elements are favourable to the metal packaging industry. Indeed, metal packaging is easily separated from other waste and the infrastructure to do so is already widely in place. Metal packaging is made to be recycled, repeatedly, and its secondary raw materials market functions well. The metals value chain will continue to target higher recycling rates and be part of a true circular economy.

Under Knox-Peebles’ leadership MPE will continue to communicate and educate stakeholders and policy makers so that they understand the many advantages of metal packaging and its contribution to the circular economy. While the metal packaging sector already has one of the highest packaging recycling rates – more than 75 per cent – MPE’s goal is to increase this figure further.

“The challenge is to have the right collection systems in place and for consumers to understand that all rigid metal packaging is recyclable and should therefore be placed in the right bin,” says Knox-Peebles. “Without these first steps taking place, our objective will not be achievable.”

With the European Green Deal launched in December, the EU continues on its ambitious path for a sustainable, green transition. The new circular economy action plan, which was scheduled to be published in March, will speed up the EU’s transition towards a circular economy. 

It is an opportunity for the metal packaging industry to reiterate how its products will help Europe to become a carbon neutral continent by 2050.

Measures of success
Delivering MPE’s ambitious 24-month circular economy strategy informs and drives the organisation’s collective objectives. The strategy comes at a crucial moment when collaboration across nations and supply chains will determine the success of the policy developed in Brussels. It sets out how MPE, its expert working groups and its members are already delivering positive change and confirms its focus over the next 24 months is on co-operating for a sustainable supply chain, ensuring sustainable design and production, facilitating sustainable consumption and supporting better collection, sorting and recycling.

“As a knowledge partner, MPE aims to be recognised by the EU institutions and stakeholders as a reliable partner, representing the voice of the rigid metal packaging industry in Europe,” says Knox-Peebles. “With the huge number of initiatives which the European Commission will be publishing this year, it will be critical for our members to be kept informed of those which could have an impact on their core business.

“We will also continue to gather scientific and industry data in order to reinforce the understanding of rigid metal packaging’s important role within the circular economy.”

However, she recognises that while plastics packaging has received much negative publicity over the past few years, the metal packaging sector has more to do to promote its benefits among more brand owners, retailers and consumers and is already acting upon it.

As Knox-Peebles explains, the benefits of metal packaging are clear. It is designed for circularity, reduces food waste, reduces energy use and carbon emissions, and recycles forever.

“Making these benefits known and clear to key stakeholders is critical,” she points out. “This is why we recently launched in December 2019 a dedicated microsite at www.metalrecyclesforever.eu to  further promote our Metal Recycles Forever logo, to help consumers better understand the key role they have to play in keeping metal in the material loop by recycling their empty packaging and communicating the benefits thereof through the website  www.metalrecycleseurope.eu.”

Consumer engagement and responsible behaviour are arguably top of the agenda for brand owners, she adds. “Consumers and policy makers look to brand owners and retailers to be more resource efficient and to help them understand the value of recycling,” says Knox-Peebles.

“The Metal Recycles Forever logo provides that higher level of understanding and engagement and is at this point in time freely available for all brand owners to use and apply across all types of rigid metal packaging.”

With 80 per cent of EU citizens increasingly buying environmentally-friendly products, it has never been more important to engage and accurately inform consumers, she adds: “The Metal Recycles Forever logo places consumers at the heart of the European circular economy, which is critical given consumers see recyclability as the leading proof point of environmentally-friendly packaging.

“Metal Recycles Forever equally prompts consumers to sort their rigid metal packaging in order for it to be recycled and to make the material available for the next metal product (packaging or not), thereby reducing the need to use virgin primary material and consequently hugely reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”

Responding to attacks
However, the plastics packaging industry and brand owners that use PET extensively, such as Coca-Cola, are fighting back against adverse publicity and doing a lot more to increase the recycled content of their packaging. They argue that the energy/cost balance for using aluminium rather than PET, for example, is not as clear cut as some argue. So how does Knox-Peebles respond?

“When metal cans reach the end of their useful life, the materials are simply collected and recycled, again and again, with no loss of their inherent properties,” she explains. “Unlike some other materials, metal does not need to add virgin material in order to produce a product with a performance equal to that of a product made from the virgin raw material.”

She also points out that being a highly-recycled permanent material, metal reduces the use of raw materials, energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions: recycling one tonne of aluminium scrap, for instance, uses up to 95 per cent less energy than making one tonne of metal from raw material, whereas one tonne of recycled steel scrap saves over two tonnes of raw materials, she adds.

“In the case of rigid metal packaging, only recycling will pay off: recycling brings an environmental benefit no matter for which metal application the recycled material is subsequently used – the material loop is working,” she says.