Recycling & Recovery of Aluminium Foil Containing Packaging

Increasing collection and recycling/recovery rates for aluminium foil and alufoil packaging means that an equivalent quantity of primary (i.e. virgin) aluminium will not be required by the industry. This represents a significant energy saving as processing recycled aluminium requires 95% less energy than the equivalent quantity of primary metal produced from bauxite.

Strongly supported by the industry, foil container collection rates have steadily increased throughout Europe with the reported average collection rate of above 50% for 2010. An additional, but as yet unquantified, quantity of aluminium (packaging) is also recovered from the waste to energy incineration plant bottom ashes.

See below for more information. Links to national aluminium packaging recycling organisations are listed here.

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Why is recycling and recovery so important?

The practise of collection, recycling and recovery of a product’s packaging after use returns valuable materials and energy to be used again. For aluminium containing packaging, recovering the aluminium effectively reduces the demand for the equivalent quantity of primary (virgin) aluminium which would need to be mined. When very thin alufoil is recovered via incineration, it produces energy whilst simultaneously minimizing the amount of “waste” being sent to landfill. Recycling the recovered aluminium effectively reduces our dependence on natural resources and ensures that they are used efficiently and effectively.

Is recycling of packaging a legal obligation?

In Europe and other parts of the world, the recycling and recovery of packaging is a legal obligation. In the EU this is defined in the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (P&PW) 94/62/EC which requires all Member States to introduce systems such that at least 60% of packaging (by weight) must be recycled or recovered through waste incineration with energy recovery. This P&PWD directive, which will be reviewed in 2014, also specifies minimum material-specific recycling targets: 60% by weight for glass, 60% by weight for paper and board; 50% by weight for metals; 22.5% by weight for plastics and 15% by weight for wood. (Note: Country packaging recycling and recovery targets may differ and be more stringent for certain packaging materials).

What is so important about aluminium recycling?

Aluminium is fully recyclable, endlessly, without any loss of quality.

Approximately 75% of all the aluminium ever produced is still in productive use today. Recycling the aluminium creates a virtual aluminium pool which is replenished out of short term applications (e.g. packaging) and long term applications (e.g. buildings). The aluminium in this virtual “pool” can be used and recycled time after time with-out any loss of it properties or quality.

Also, the recycling process for aluminium requires 95% less energy compared to the primary production which corresponds to enormous emission and energy savings when this recycled aluminium is used. Recycled aluminium, also referred to as “aluminium scrap,” is consequently a valuable raw material for a wide variety of applications.

However, this doesn't mean that aluminium is a scarce material. Aluminium is the most abundant metallic element in the earth's crust (over 7% by weight) and the third most abundant of all elements (after oxygen and silicon). It is estimated that there are enough economically available reserves to supply at least another 300 years at the current demand.

Is aluminium foil recycled?

Yes, aluminium foil and alufoil packaging is widely recycled in Europe today. For aluminium packaging (i.e. packaging with aluminium dominant material including beverage cans), the estimated average recycling rate in Europe today is about 60%. The amount of aluminium packaging recycled greatly depends on the efficiency of the national packaging collection schemes in each European country. For aluminium packaging, national rates across Europe vary from 30% to 80% or more. The metal in aluminium packaging is fully recyclable and can, in principle, be used for the production of new packaging applications or other valuable aluminium products such as castings for the automotive industry or for building products.

In the situations where aluminium foil and alufoil packaging are not collected separately for recycling, they are collected together with the rest of the household waste which normally enters an energy recovery process when it is safely incinerated. During the incineration process a part of the aluminium in the packaging, in particular the thin and laminated foil fraction, is oxidised, releasing energy which is recovered and converted to heat and electricity. However, recent studies show that a significant proportion of even the thin guage aluminium foil in packaging is not oxidised, but melts and is increasingly collected from the bottom ashes of the incinerator, sorted and returned to the “aluminium pool” to be reused. These small pieces of aluminium are readily separated from the bottom ashes using eddy current sorting technology. This has an additional benefit that the bottom ash, now free of non-ferrous metals, are more stable and can then be reused in construction projects such as roads. (see also Fact Sheet on recovering the aluminium metal from the bottom ashes)

Can the aluminium metal be recovered from the incinerator bottom ashes?

Yes, the aluminium contained in packaging entering the waste to energy incineration recovery process can be, and increasingly is, recovered from the incinerator bottom ashes. A recent study involving five different waste to energy incinerators in Europe, concluded that a significant portion of the aluminium, even in thin aluminium foil and flexible packaging, is recoverable as aluminium metal from the incinerator bottom ashes. The study indicated that for the incinerators studied, a minimum of 40% of the thin aluminium foil is available for recovery with this percentage increasing up to 80% for the thicker gauges of aluminium in packaging.

More information on this study is summarised here.

What is “Recycled Content”?

Many packaging materials can be made from either virgin or recycled raw materials or a combination of both. The recycled content is defined by the quantity of recycled material in the final pack and is normally expressed as a percentage. In the case of metals the term Recycled Metal Content or RMC is used.

Consumers often mistakenly understand “recycled content” to mean that the recycled materials used have been exclusively recovered from packaging or products used by consumers or “post-consumer”.  However, the labelling standard - ISO 14021 - states that "recycled content and its associated terms shall be interpreted as proportion, by mass, of recycled material in a product or packaging. Only pre-consumer and post-consumer materials shall be considered as recycled content." Pre-consumer materials are defined as those recycled from the solid waste stream during converting downstream of the manufacturing processes. In the case of aluminium, this includes all scrap produced after the final melting casting process.

Is an increased Recycled Metal Content (RMC) a meaningful environmental indicator?

A higher recycled metal content in a given aluminium application is, in general, not meaningful as an indicator of a lower environmental impact. This is because RMC is only an indication of how much recycled aluminium has been taken from “aluminium pool” and does not necessarily increase that amount of recycled aluminium entering the pool.

The global market demand for aluminium far exceeds the available supply of recycled aluminium. Today, all the available recycled aluminium is usefully deployed in product applications so prioritising its use in a particular product to claim a higher RMC does not lower the overall environmental impact as the ration of recycled to primary metal remains unchanged.

Given the positive environmental impact associated with increasing the available recycled aluminium, the industry considers it more important to track and increase the overall recycling rate of aluminium including foil. This is known as the Aluminium End of Life Recycling Rate and varies from above 50% for packaging to over 90% for buildings and transport applications.

As there are no tangible environmental benefits from a higher RMC, a further reduction of the overall environmental impact from the recycled aluminium can be achieved by directing the available recycled aluminium towards specific targeted market applications where it is most efficiently recycled into new applications/products.

A RMC claim cannot be verified post production as it is not possible to distinguish, via a metallurgical analysis or otherwise, how often the aluminium has been recycled. The RMC of a product can only be determined by tracking the different aluminium material flows entering the aluminium casting process.