Home » News » Content
Product Categories

Metal Packaging? Environmental Scorecard (i)

- Oct 25, 2018 -

I’m going to discuss what’s driving the renewed environmental interest and concern regarding packaging and the environment, and describe how metal packaging scores in this respect and offer my views as to what we need to do to respond to those environmental concerns.

Packaging - the facts

The total environmental impact of packaging (including its recycling and disposal) is very substantially less than the collateral environmental damage that would arise from wasted product if it is not correctly packaged and protected. We in the industry can’t over-emphasise that packaging conserves far more resources than it ever uses.

Packaging only exists to contain, protect, preserve and promote products.

It’s not an optional extra – it’s a fundamental part of our national infrastructure which enables the way in which we live today.

Demand for packaging is directly linked to consumer demand for products. In an era where consumers expect to buy the widest range of goods and services 24/7, this can only be achieved by the appropriate packaging of products. On average, the overall impact of packaging is less than ten per cent of that of the products that it contains. The amount of packaging used in the UK has remained virtually unchanged for the last ten years despite significant increases in consumer consumption

Packaging at the end of its useful life (so called packaging waste) represents a usable and available resource for recycling and recovery – including, as appropriate, energy from waste. It’s less than twenty per cent of household waste and the small amount of unrecovered material is less than three per cent of annual landfilled waste.

What goes around ...

Packaging actually plays a significant role in the sustainable economy by maintaining the value in a product for as long as necessary and helping prevent product waste.


In fact packaging’s a prime example of how the circular economy can work.


What is driving circular economic thinking?


The global economy has followed a linear pattern of production and consumption for the past 150 years and in that time has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.


But this model has reached its limits as ever greater pressure is put on the Earth’s resources. A linear economy can simply no longer provide the growth to sustain rising living standards across a global population which continues to expand apace.


Circular economic thinking means maintaining access to materials and resources for continual and future use. With an ever-expanding human population and rising standards of living across the globe, it’s likely to be the only viable option to maintain standards of living. A more circular economy means keeping the value of products, materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible, whilst at the same time minimising waste.


Europe is the world’s largest net importer of resources at €760 billion a year- fifty per cent more than the US

The UK increasingly re-uses and recycles the resources it already has and it’s estimated that a more circular economy could help generate 50,000 new jobs with £10 billion investment, boosting GDP by £3 billion.




Pressure to demonstrate and achieve material energy and waste reduction is coming not only from the law-makers and regulators, but the market is demanding that packaging manufacturers demonstrate sustainable practices.


Sustainability has become one of the key performance indicators of a business’s health.


Major retailers, consumer goods and packaging companies in the UK are responding to consumers’ concerns and seeking to differentiate their offerings compared to their competitors by establishing their sustainability credentials. They’re insisting on certain standards throughout the whole of the supply chain.


Business sustainability is often defined as managing the triple bottom line - a process by which companies manage their financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities.


These three impacts are sometimes referred to as profits, people and planet.

Marks and Spencer

You can see how a major UK retailer, Marks and Spencer, under its ‘Plan A’ is insisting that its packaging suppliers adopt sustainable packaging design, that they reduce waste through recycling, minimise process waste during the manufacturing process, cut carbon emissions, and light weight their packaging with full traceability of ethically sourced materials. They’re committed that by 2022 all their packaging will be recyclable or widely recycled.


So I’m going to look in a bit more detail how metal packaging, the sector my trade association represents, scores on the environmental and sustainability front.

The Metal Packaging Manufacturers Association represents the interests of companies involved in the production of light metal containers, closures and components: we’re the lead voice of the United Kingdom’s metal packaging sector. As an industry we consume over 600,000 tonnes of tinplate and aluminium each year, supplying 32 factories, employing over 4,000 people and selling around 18 billion units per annum.

We protect and support our members’ interests on a wide variety of issues to government, both European and British, and we promote the benefits of aluminium and steel through education programmes, industry awards and through the media.

Metal packaging: a changing landscape for our industry?

I believe it’s clear that metal packaging has to demonstrate and achieve real sustainability performance improvement if we’re to make the can one of the most sustainable packaging materials in its supply chain.

This is already happening. For example, the largest global can makers have committed themselves to making significant reductions to their companies’ impact on the environment by 2020.

So let’s look more closely at metal packaging’s sustainability credentials.

Metals: the circular economy at work

Both aluminium and steel are ‘permanently available materials’.

It used to be that there were two recognised characteristics of materials: renewable and non-renewable but thanks to the efforts of the metal packaging industry there is now a third category - permanently available material.

As the name suggests, permanent materials can be recycled with no change to their intrinsic properties, no matter how many times they’re recycled - unlike non-permanent materials which can only be recycled a limited number of times.

Metal’s ‘permanently available’ status is now enshrined in BS 8905 and its status is also recognised in the EU Circular Economy Directive.

Recycling ‘Permanent Material’ animation

Let’s look at this short animation which describes metal’s permanent materials attributes.

Recycling: the key to consumers

Consumers have a strong preference for companies that adopt environmentally friendly products and packaging, and support companies that carry out recycling.

In fact metal packaging is recycled more than any other primary packaging material.


Steel is the most recycled packaging material in Europe: 78 per cent of steel packaging is currently recycled, meaning over twenty years of continuous improvement by the steel for packaging sector where recycling rates have risen more than threefold.


And the important thing to remember about metal packaging is the percentage of material actually recycled rather than focussing on recycled content.


Recycling and emissions

Recycling steel saves seventy per cent of the energy needed to create steel from scratch and with aluminium 95 per cent of the original energy.

Energy reduction CO2 emissions

Massive reductions in C02 emissions have been achieved in raw steel making and the plated steel used in metal packaging.

The amount of energy required to make raw steel has reduced by sixty per cent over the last fifty years and with initiatives like the European ultra low carbon dioxide steel project is forecast to reduce C02 emissions by a further fifty per cent over the next thirty years.