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17th Apr 2021

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Steel for packaging on track to meet EU recycling targets

  • Steel recycling rates are above 90% in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. (Photo: Tata Steel Europe)

The announcement of the European Commission's (EC) circular economy package in December 2015 has sparked a wave of debate across the packaging industry and beyond.

Catapulting sustainability, recycling and the entire culture of how Europe uses its natural resources into focus, it is widely expected to be a catalyst for change.

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For environmental reasons the need for change is beyond dispute. But the EC has also recognised the outstanding economic opportunity it presents.

Changing the way we use natural resources, manufacture goods and keep resources in the loop through recycling could promote greater economic sustainability too.

The package does not lack in ambition. The EC predicts savings of €600 billion for EU businesses equivalent to 8% of their annual turnover, along with the creation of 580,000 jobs and a reduction of EU carbon emissions by 450 million tonnes per year.

How does the EC propose this revolution happens?

A package of measures coupled with significant investment (more than €6bn in total) are suggested including, for the packaging industry, higher recycling rates, new quality standards for secondary materials and a progressive ban on the landfill of waste.

Higher recycling targets are proposed for steel – 75% by 2025 and 85% by 2030 – which we at APEAL consider ambitious but achievable. And a split recycling target for metals is proposed, that will foster greater understanding of the recycling performance of individual metals.

The challenge for those behind the package will be to engender widespread support within the European Parliament to ensure they can deliver on what is proposed.

What does this mean for steel?

So what does this all mean for the steel industry?

At APEAL, we are confident that the inherent properties of steel meet the requirements of packaging material in a fully circular economy.

There is no better illustration of the case we can make – and the progress we've already made towards closing the material loop – than the graphic and video below.

(Photo: APEAL)

The figures show recycling rates above 75% in many major European companies including Portugal, Spain, France, Norway, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.

In Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, recycling rates are above 90%, close to fully closing the loop and ensuring all steel packaging is recycled and reused.

Promisingly too, those with lower rates such as Poland are engaging in the process of improving their infrastructure to help bring recycling levels up.

It makes APEAL increasingly confident about meeting our own self-imposed overall recycling target of 80% by 2020.

Steel has inherent advantages over competing materials. Steel's magnetic properties make it easy and economical to extract from any waste stream as there is no need for a specific sorting process. It can also be recycled infinitely with no loss of quality. Finally because steel scrap is an integral part of the production process for new steel, every single steel plant in Europe is a recycling plant. Thus each steel plant in Europe has the capacity to save resources, energy and emissions by recycling steel in a simple and efficient process.

This unique blend means steel is well positioned to meet future packaging requirements in a circular economy; a clear selling point for our four member companies – ArcelorMittal, Tata Steel Packaging, thyssenkrupp Packaging Steel and U.S. Steel Kosice.

One way for the different packaging materials to position themselves effectively in what we hope will be a new kind of marketplace driven by the three pillars of economic, environmental and social sustainability, is through detailed, quality-reviewed and transparent data.

Life cycle thinking and creating a clear record of a material's environmental profile gives businesses and brands the full picture, allowing them to make informed and sustainable choices about packaging.

For example, APEAL has delivered and made publicly available a full life cycle dataset for tinplate since 2006. This dataset reveals the continuous improvements in environmental performance made by the industry and demonstrates the environmental impact from recycling. Since 2006, carbon dioxide emissions from tinplate production have decreased by 12%, with primary energy demand dropping by 2%.

This, we believe, will become increasingly important.

What happens next?

While the announcement of the package and the increased recycling rates within are certain to increase understanding of the sustainable credentials of steel for packaging, this is just the beginning; the starter's pistol has been fired.

We expect a great deal more debate and political scrutiny as the package passes through the European Parliament.

Providing it does, we expect it to push national Governments, spurred on by the need to meet recycling rate targets, to improve national collection systems, increase recycling processes and encourage manufacturers to privilege more recyclable materials in their design and production processes.

Consumers meanwhile are set to become increasingly aware of these issues as the race to become more sustainable develops and companies accentuate their environmental credentials.

Once consumers catch on, the real progress will undoubtedly be made.

Disclaimer

This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.

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