How do we capitalise?
This is undoubtedly a major historic opportunity for metal packaging. Metal has very high recycling rates worldwide, and recycled metals have a high economic value. Post-consumer aluminium scrap today has a value of about 60 per cent of the LME, so around $1,200 per tonne. Plastic waste used to have a value of $20 per tonne, but now you have to pay $10 per tonne to have it taken away, not surprising perhaps now that the Chinese have all but stopped importing any plastics for recycling.
Plastic packaging is of course supported by its low cost. But what would happen if it had to support the real cost of recycling? It’s time to end the gentlemanly agreement prevalent in many countries which spreads the cost of recycling over all materials, which essentially means that metal is subsidising plastic. True costing would significantly narrow the cost gap between the two materials and would let economic forces contribute to solving the recycling problem.
The vast scale of the PET bottle consumption means that even ‘small crumbs’ from their table will have a dramatic effect on metal packaging volumes. The most immediate targets are the growing single-serve sectors: flavoured mineral waters, low or no sugar fruit beverages, ready to drink herbal teas, protein drinks. Why should any of these be in plastic?
How they can have a ‘new age’ image when their plastic bottles can be seen floating down the river or in the mouth of a suffocated seabird?
To take advantage of this opportunity, the industry does not need to spread negative press on plastics; the damage is self-inflicted and needs no emphasis. But it should stress the multiple benefits of metal, not just in recycling, but also in metal’s growing ability to match plastic’s features: shaping, lightweight, soft touch and other special textures, photographic quality images and colours, re-sealability.
At SLAC we stand ready to help can makers seize the opportunity. Many of the new market opportunities are likely to be from smaller volume ranges, with many variants, in average run sizes which in the past would have precluded DWI. For this reason, SLAC has developed mini-line concepts around SLAC’s new digital printer, which lowers the traditional volume threshold for DWI and opens up low-cost opportunities for annual volumes of 75m cans, ten times less than the generally accepted minimum for conventional DWI. New age soft drinks, craft beers, flavoured mineral waters, monobloc aerosols and printed food cans could all benefit from this new approach. One of the mini-line concepts is a completely stand-alone line using Tata’s Protact laminated steel, the result of a joint project between the two companies to develop a DWI line with a small footprint.
And finally, we are striving to make technology access easier by moving to the next level of line productivity. Inspired by the extraordinarily intelligent methods developed by bees over millions of years to produce honey efficiently, The Hive Initiative is SLAC’s project to develop machine intelligence in the world of can making. Most modern lines already have sophisticated equipment for tracking the quality of the can as it is produced in-line, usually through vision systems. With The Hive Initiative, this will be extended to tracking the equipment itself, on all of the multiple critical control points that define ultimate quality.
It’s time for the industry to take advantage of current market conditions in the packaging sector.