Aluminium versus plastic in the recycling arena

Jon Lawson

The UK Government’s plan, Our waste, our resources: A strategy for England, published in December 2018, is the most comprehensive update to the country’s waste strategy in more than a decade. But, is this plan focusing efforts in the wrong places? Miguel Campos at Advanta gives his response.

There’s no doubt this policy paper is needed. The plan addresses how new rules, incentives and support systems will ensure more sustainable use of materials on a national level. Yet, of the 146 pages of strategy, aluminium was mentioned just once.
The paper puts particular onus eliminating avoidable plastic waste to improve the environment, but it doesn’t dwell on alternative materials. Among the plans, the strategy suggests making the producer pay for end-of-life costs, to ensure collection, sorting and reprocessing of materials is covered.
The strategy homes in on the advantages of returning materials back to the market consistently, as part of a recurring circular economy. The idea of a circular economy is to reuse a material time and time again, instead of the inefficient linear economic model of ‘take, make, use, throw.’ So, why is aluminium not more prominent in the plans?
Aluminium’s ability to be melted, reformed and reused time and time again is unlike any other material. It makes the recycling and reprocessing part of the circular economy cycle much more desirable in terms of profitability. Yes, there are some costs involved in retrieval and sorting, but for the right material, recycling pays off.
As aluminium maintains its scrap value incredibly well, the material commands the highest price per tonne for any material collected. Additionally, recycling aluminium saves around 95% of the energy needed to make the metal from raw materials, which reduces carbon emissions significantly.
As there is such a huge market for recycling aluminium, it makes sense for food manufacturers to use this material for a profitable circular economy. This begs the question, why has the policy paper failed to promote this material as the preferable alternative to plastic?  
One thing the paper did get right was the importance of putting the onus on food manufacturers. The introduction of tax on packaging with less than 30 % recycled plastic will certainly encourage the use of recycled materials, but that leaves 70% of raw material in the product. The paper also highlights the problems associated with black plastic, a common choice for food retailers but a nightmare for sorting machinery at recycling plants, which cannot detect the pigment.
The paper continues to explain how the Government will ban plastic products where there is a clear case to use an alternative material. But again, there is little mention of tangible alternatives and materials differentiation. After all, we need to choose the right alternatives — a material’s recyclability is only as valuable as the market for it.
We already have what we need to package food products sustainably, as part of a profitable circular economy. Aluminium is a material that we can rely on, and it’s here to stay. Expect future sustainability plans issued by the Government to include more than one mention of this incredible material, attributing its worth to unrivalled recyclability and exceptional scrap value.


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