The viability of achieving net zero

Image: Shutterstock

Achieving net zero will require significant changes in practices and infrastructures, Anne-Marie Hardie reports


Beverage cans have long been touted as the path toward achieving a sustainable aluminium industry. From a material perspective, beverage cans can have a high percentage of recycled material and retain the integrity of the product. According to the Aluminum Association, over US$ 800 million can be saved each year in the US economy simply by recycling every aluminium beverage can. Recycling plays a critical role in achieving decarbonisation in the aluminium industry. Using this secondary aluminium, ideally in a closed loop system that transforms can sheet metal back into a new can, reduces the carbon intensity of aluminium beverage can production by 1.02 kg CO2 per 1000 cans. Currently, more than 92 per cent of recycled can material in the United States is recycled back into a new can.

According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, the average US beverage can contains 73 per cent recycled content. The use of secondary aluminium can help resolve several challenges, including decreasing emissions, by minimising the demand for raw aluminium and addressing the significant supply issues that the industry continues to face.

In March 2022, The International Aluminum Institute published its beverage study, ‘A Circularity Case for Aluminum Compared with Glass and Plastic.’ The report looked at three materials: aluminium, glass, and plastic and compared their potential in helping to achieve a circular economy. Currently, 70 per cent of global aluminium is recycled, which is a sharp contrast to the recycling rates of both glass (34 per cent) and plastic (40 per cent). Two out of three beverage cans are recycled within 60 days, with 33 per cent of the products recycled in a closed loop system. The study illuminated several critical benefits of aluminium cans including that there were minimal losses (only 10 per cent) during the sorting and reprocessing process, in comparison to a 33 per cent loss for glass and 34 per cent for PET, and that 98 per cent of recycled aluminium cans being able to be recycled again, potentially creating an infinite loop of recycling.

Recycling makes sense from both an environmental and economic perspective. However, there are significant barriers to achieving these sustainability initiatives including consumer buy-in, the limitations in older technology, and the lack of infrastructure to support this demand.

Brazil, Germany and Japan have each successfully increased consumer participation in
their national recycling programmes. Image: Shutterstock

The dependence on consumers

One of the core challenges of boosting the secondary aluminium stream is its dependency on consumers participating in the process. Globally, approximately 70 per cent of beverage cans are recycled; however, to achieve the goal of ne zero, that number needs to be closer to 90 per cent. To address this challenge, there needs to be both regional and national programmes to increase consumer engagement. This includes understanding not only the national recycling rate but also the barriers that may be limiting consumers from participating. For example, the United States is one of the largest consumers of beverage cans, consuming an average of five cans per week. However, the recycling uptake remains on the lower end of the spectrum at 46 per cent (2019). On a positive note, 92.6 per cent of the material that is recycled is being used to make new cans.

Brazil, Germany and Japan are three countries that have each successfully increased their consumer participation in their national recycling programmes. In Japan, 93.5 per cent of cans are recycled; this figure considers the number of cans that are collected, sorted, reprocessed and remelted. Several aspects that have contributed to this high percentage, including consumer recognition of recycling’s importance and having an extremely modern recycling infrastructure, help ensure that recycled products stay out of the landfill.

In Brazil, consumers recycle approximately 91.4 per cent of their beverage cans. This high uptake rate has been attributed to Brazil’s investment in collection and recycling centres.

While Germany, whose recycling rate ranks at 98 per cent, instituted a highly successful deposit programme to increase consumer engagement. The success of these three regions reveals that there is not a straightforward solution for increasing consumer engagement. Although having a solid recycling infrastructure in place is vital, this will have minimal impact if the end consumers do not see the benefit in participating. Shifting consumer behaviour begins with understanding the factors that are impacting adoption rates and the potential motivators that may help address these barriers. It is a solution that will require continual investment and consumer engagement, which may result in exploring a variety of measures to determine the right ones for that specific community.

Paving a path forward

Consumer engagement is only one piece of the sustainability puzzle. In order to achieve the goal of net zero, there needs to be significant changes throughout the entire supply chain including investing in sustainable, local, infrastructure. Canada, for example, is one country that has been highly successful in engaging consumers to recycle aluminium beverage cans. However, it lacks the infrastructure to transform these recycled products into new cans. As a direct result, most recycled cans are sold and shipped to a remelt facility outside of the country, turning them back into sheet stock which are then bought by the can making facilities, increasing both the carbon and economic footprint of the Canadian can making process.

In September 2022, twenty key players in the regional aluminium associations, endorsed the Mission Possible Partnership (MPP), affirming their commitment to achieve net zero by 2050. This report formalises their commitment while outlining a path which includes seven distinct strategies that will help move the industry toward this goal.

“This Aluminium Transition Strategy is operationally relevant and industry-backed, not wishful thinking or pie in the sky,” said Matt Rogers, CEO, MPP. “We know how to reduce emissions, initially deploying resources and technology available today. The imperative is to act now, in this decade: we’re working with industry, supply chains and finance to deliver the clear thinking and asset-by-asset plans to make net zero viable.”

The success of this partnership will require collaboration across all sectors of the aluminium industry. The report stressed how continuing to work in isolation (in silos) will dramatically impede the progress of these initiatives. Instead, it emphasised the importance of working together to develop and share solutions to collectively achieve the challenging task of becoming net zero. This includes developing a set of standards and policy recommendations to help expedite innovations and investments.

Achieving net zero will require significant changes in the practices and infrastructures. Smelters and refineries were both spotlighted for their carbon output, including the pressing need to make significant improvements. Shifting the power source from carbon intensive ones, like coal, to a low carbon grid power will be critical to reducing emissions. However, this is far from a simple solution. In order to achieve this goal, the smelters and refineries will need to be close to areas with wind or solar generation capacity. Currently, 52 per cent of the smelters in China may struggle with accessing these sustainable alternatives. This may result in plant shutdowns, relocations, or an investment to retrofit the facility with low carbon power solutions. However, each of these options are extremely costly and complex.

In addition, producing this low carbon aluminium is substantially more costly than conventional aluminium, potentially up to $400 more a tonne. This increased cost is partially due to the need to retrofit existing infrastructure, to produce low carbon aluminium, which on a positive note will be offset over time. In order to move forward, several critical pieces need to be in place, including reducing the cost of technologies, policies, and buyer actions to both create and facilitate a market for low carbon aluminium and the need for sustainable financing across the entire supply chain.

To achieve net zero, the MPP study emphasised the importance of maximising secondary aluminium production. One of the conditions of making net-zero aluminium possible is dependent on the collection of the used material. Currently, the global collection rate of aluminium is 70 per cent. For this plan to have long term sustainability the collection rate needs to increase by 20 per cent, achieving a 90 per cent collection rate. Recycling aluminium will not only keep the product of the landfill but drastically reduce the carbon footprint (0.5t CO2e/t aluminium [Al] compared to primary aluminium (16t CO2e/t aluminium [Al].

Achieving net zero is feasible, but it is a path that will require a significant commitment from the entire industry to have a long-term impact. Improving material and resource efficiency, which includes maximising secondary production are viable solutions for sustainability.

However, increasing the adoption rate of recycling is only one piece of the puzzle. There needs to be an investment in infrastructure, including developing robust municipal recovery facilities that will facilitate the closed loop system.

Achieving net zero will require significant
changes in practices and infrastructures. Image: Pixabay

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