Why some beverage cans are not recyclable

Did you know that used aluminium drink cans can be recycled, re-manufactured and back on supermarket shelves in 60 days?

The low-weight, shelf-presence and freshness benefits of the aluminium can mean that it has fast become the container of choice for beverage brands. This is especially true in the booming craft beverage market, which now extends beyond beer to hard seltzer, water and cocktails. Aluminium is also one of the most sustainable packaging materials, being infinitely recyclable: the reclamation and smelting process does not alter its properties (as it can with other materials) and it can be re-used again and again. An amazing 75% of all the aluminium ever made is still in use today!

However, craft brewers seeking an affordable short run solution for can decoration are unwittingly contaminating aluminium cans by using pre-printed plastic sleeves and labels. The can manufacturers are already beginning to push back on this, with Ball Corporation recently publishing its “Toward A Perfect Circle” vision for a fully circular beverage packaging system.

The Aluminium Association has recently published a container design guide aimed at maximising full circular recycling of Aluminium. The guide, which can be downloaded here, makes it clear just how damaging the use of plastic labels and sleeves on beverage cans is to the can overall recycling process:

  1. At the first stage of the recycling process incoming waste is sorted into streams for each material type. Optical sorters often mistake plastic sleeved cans for plastic containers, diverting them to the wrong waste stream. Billions of cans end up in landfill each year in the USA, and some states are now banning them from landfill.
  2. Once separated, aluminium cans are baled before the bales are shredded. The ISRI* spec for baled aluminium states bales must be "free of ... bottle caps, plastic cans and other plastic". This is because plastic dust from sleeves creates combustible dust which creates a significant fire/explosion risk. Plastic also gums up the shredders, causing breakdowns and reducing efficiency.
  3. Next the shredded aluminium is heated to burn off ink and varnish. At this point plastics in the shredding mix again create a fire risk and cause downtime. PVC labels give off chlorine when burned, requiring the exhaust to be incinerated to remove pollutants. PVC remains the most commonly used label and shrink sleeve material.

As a result, the authorities are beginning to legislate against the use of shrink sleeves and labels. In Quebec, beverage cans must not carry labels or sleeves that represent more than 1% of the package total weight (can + lid). Since the aluminium can is so light, a label or shrink sleeve will weigh 10-15% of the total pack. A total ban on the use of shrink sleeves on beverage cans is expected this year.

The need for an alternative, sustainable solution is driving early adoption of direct can decoration using Tonejet's sub-micron digital decoration system in Eastern Canada. Printing directly onto the beverage can removes the recycling headaches and is lower in cost, providing a higher quality result than labelling or sleeving - indistinguishable from that of traditionally printed cans. Tonejet’s technology will be available later this year in the UK via BevCraft, who are setting up a brand-new facility in Peterborough to offer direct digital can decorations.

*ISRI = Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries

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