Can metal packaging help prevent climate disaster?

Sustainability has been a perpetual headline for the last few years, and for good reason. But however well-intentioned the discussion has been, it has recently felt quite stagnant and one-note. It can be hard to tell which corporate sustainability initiatives are the real deal, and which are ill thought out at best and green-washing at worst.

Reports of COP27, the 2022 edition of the conference, paint a more urgent picture than previous years. The UN Climate Change Conference began in 1995 with the mission of strengthening the united global response to climate change. Now 27 years later, the world has experienced the very real effects of global warming, much earlier and more severely than many scientists had anticipated. This year has been a year of broken records, with temperatures passing 40°C for the first time ever in the UK (an occurrence that, only two years ago, scientists predicted having a 100 to 1 chance of happening this century). China also experienced a 70 day heatwave, disrupting crop growth, livestock, and food supply, while Jacobabad, Pakistan, recorded a high of 49°C. Not to mention the once-in-500-year drought that swept through Europe.

With the climate situation seeming more desperate than ever, our efforts towards reducing emissions must become more ruthless and efficient. We consume food in its various packaging forms daily; it is a big part of life and thus is an important consideration to make.

Recently, companies announcing their latest recycled plastic packaging has fallen flat in the midst of news of the shortcomings of the material. In spite of it often being seen as a sustainable solution, plastic is extremely costly and time-consuming to recycle, which also translates to increased energy usage.

The fact that recycled plastics continue to shed microplastics is also rarely mentioned, a topic that has recently been in the news as scientists discovered microplastic pollution in human blood for the first time back in March. Although the extent of the potential harm that microplastics can cause is yet to be fully explored, they have certainly been linked with cell damage, both allergic reactions and cell death.

Compostable packaging has also often been the source of much enthusiasm as an eco-friendly alternative. Although it initially seemed promising, compostable packaging also comes with its own drawbacks. A survey found that currently in the UK, only 1 in 400 compostable takeaway coffee cups make it to an appropriate processing facility. Compostable packaging needs to be disposed of in food bins, but when incorrectly placed in recycling bins, it can contaminate the rest of the recycling and make it harder to be sorted.

Aluminium cans and their recycled counterpart were officially ranked first and second place for most sustainable drink containers by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. “Aluminium can be constantly recycled with no change in properties. Recycling an aluminium can save 95 per cent of the energy used to make a new can and no new material needs to be mined or transported,” reported the Alliance. It was however pointed out, that an insufficient 52 per cent of aluminium packaging was recycled.

Metal packaging is arguably the best sustainable option, and food and beverage companies would do well to use it as much as possible. While can makers have much to celebrate, they must also increase their recycling efforts, as well as considering the elimination of single-use packaging in general through the adoption of return and reuse schemes.

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