Metals Recycling – Busting The Myths #1

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Geoff Courtney, chairman of the UK Can Makers, tackles the myths that surround what happens when metal is sent for recycling in the first of this three-part online exclusive feature
CIWM Journal Online Exclusive


We all know that recycling is important. We read the papers. We see the news. We may even know some of the stats. However, that doesn’t mean that we know all of the facts. The truth is there are a lot of myths out there about what happens to our recycling, specifically beverage cans. Do our drinks cans end up in landfill? How much metal is really recycled? Isn’t it just a bit too complicated?

A myriad of myths exist, partly because there is an element of mystery in the act of recycling itself. Materials go into a special bin and a truck comes and takes them away, meaning you don’t actually see what happens to the recyclables with your own eyes.  It is this general lack of knowledge that has caused the misconceptions to grow to fabricated proportions. This article aims to dispel the key myths about drinks cans recycling and rid the common misunderstandings that can confuse those trying to do the right thing for a more sustainable environment.

Busting The Myth – Not Much Metal Packaging Is Recycled

There is a general concern that metal packaging does not get recycled as much as it should or as much as other packaging materials are recycled.

In fact, the UK achieved a recycling rate of 60 percent for all drinks cans in 2011, an increase of more than six percent from 2010. The recycling rate for aluminium drinks cans, specifically, increased by six percent alone in 2011, according to Alupro. For all aluminium packaging, rates have increased by more than four percent since 2010.

Steel packaging also performs well in the UK. In 2010, 59 percent of all steel can packaging was recycled, according to Defra.

A myriad of myths exist, partly because there is an element of mystery in the act of recycling itself. Materials go into a special bin and a truck comes and takes them away, meaning you don’t actually see what happens to the recyclables with your own eyes”

In 1997, Government implemented the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive in the UK, which applies to all packaging placed on the market and requires materials used to be minimised and designed for recovery and re-use.  It also requires recovery targets to be met by the UK for waste packaging. Since 2008, the UK has met, and in some cases exceeded, the minimum recovery and recycling targets set in the Directive. Looking specifically at what the metal industry is doing since the Directive came into force, the UK has invested £300m into steel recycling, collection and infrastructure over the past two decades and £120 million into aluminium.

The reality is that a lot of metal is recycled and the metals industry is investing heavily to increase this number further.

Busting The Myth – Collecting Metals Is Difficult

So, it is clear that a great deal of metal packaging is being recycled. But how exactly is it collected in the first place?  It is, in fact, very straight forward. There are multiple ways in which metal packaging for recycling can be collected.

Many people believe that kerbside boxes are the only ways in which metals can be recycled. While it is a convenient way, it is not the only way. Drinks cans can be taken to their own separate can banks, at supermarket car parks for example, and put into recycling bins.

In addition to consumer activated recycling, there is a large aspect of collection that goes on that consumers are not aware of and requires no effort on their part. Energy recovery facilities, for example, offer a waste treatment process that involves the combustion of organic substances in waste materials. Extraction from mixed domestic waste is another method of recovering valuable metal packaging that consumers are not as familiar with, in which raw materials are removed from waste to be used to produce more products. In both cases, metal is extracted and reprocessed. We will explore this stage later on in this article.

The metals is investing in developing programmes to actively enable and encourage people to recycle.  MetalMatters, for example, works in partnerships with local authorities and their waste collection partners to promote metal packaging recycling directly to householders, and thereby improve capture rates for metal packaging at the kerbside. The programme encourages householders to recycle their metal packaging in existing household recycling boxes or bins, rather than disposing of it in general waste. Twenty-seven local authorities have the MetalMatters programme across the UK so far, covering 1.7m households, communicating the benefits of metal recycling to each of them.

Every Can Counts is another example of how the industry is helping make recycling drinks cans easier both at work and on the go.  A lot of drinks cans are consumed out of the home and, as people are unlikely to keep these cans to put in their collection bins at home, the programme targets on the go locations – from universities to offices, high streets to events, and more. The away from home drinks can recycling programme helped collect 51m used beverage cans from workplaces and “on the go” locations across the UK in 2011. This equates to 774 tonnes of aluminium and steel collected and around 5,800 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions saved as a result of the programme.

Collecting metals is very straightforward, whether its consumers using the various collection facilities available, or recovering metal from mixed domestic waste.

Read More

Metals Recycling – Busting The Myths #2

Metals Recycling – Busting The Myths #3

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