Recycling & Recovery

Recycling & Recovery of Aluminium Foil 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.Aluminium packaging, including aluminium foil applications, are increasingly collected and recycled. In Europe, the average recycling rate of aluminium packaging (i.e. packaging with aluminium dominant material) is estimated at 65%.
See below for more information.

The content of the charts is also available as a video animation

For better understanding we have visualized the content of the explanatory note on Aluminium Foil & Recycled Content in five charts.

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.

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.

Is aluminium foil recycled?

Aluminium foil and aluminium foil packaging are increasingly recycled in Europe. For aluminium packaging (i.e. packaging with aluminium dominant material including beverage cans), the estimated average recycling rate in Europe today is 65% 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 more than 80%. 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 generally 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 gauge 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)

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.

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.
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 foil, this does not include process scraps generated during the rolling and slitting process.

Calling for high aluminium recycled content in specific applications will not result in a more circular economy.
What may work for other materials like paper or plastics does not work for aluminium. For materials which are losing properties after recycling, stimulating demand for recycled material provides an incentive to recycle. This does not work for aluminium which keeps all its qualities after recycling – the limiting factor of aluminium recycling is above all the availability of scraps.
With the availability of recycled aluminium being limited, increasing the recycled content of an aluminium product is highly likely to result in decreasing the recycled content of another. And the overall environmental benefit is therefore nil. The benefit can even be negative in case of less optimized material flows resulting in increases in overall transportation distances and in the related burden on the environment.

An explanatory note on Aluminium Foil & Recycled Content is downloadable here.