Driving sustainable collaboration

Image: Pexels

Evert van de Weg muses on the evolution of green thinking within the packaging industry, and speaks to Wijnand Bruinsma, AkzoNobel’s director of sustainability, about the company’s Collaborative Sustainability Challenge


In the 1970s, I was selling the then-modern twistoff closures for my Dutch company Thomassen & Drijver – Verblifa (later part of Continental Can Company, then Impress, then Ardagh and now Trivium) to producers of all kinds of food products in the Benelux countries. Another department in my company then started to sell two-piece steel DWI cans, which we began to produce in big quantities for fillers of beer and soft drinks like Heineken, Grolsch, Bavaria, Coca Cola and others.

Initially, some concerns emerged about the ecological consequences of excessive use of cans for drinks without any recycling system. In 1972, the Club of Rome issued its report ‘The limits to Growth’ as a warning to infinite consumerism, in combination with exponential population growth. The growth of packaging waste as a result of technological breakthroughs in packaging, and the quick rise of mass distribution via supermarkets, in combination with the substantial growth in prosperity of consumers, led to cautious concerns about sustainability of packaging (though nobody used the word sustainability at the time).

As a consequence of the change in thinking, the Dutch government, like other governments, required the development of an appropriate recycling system for steel cans, as a condition to gain permission for the introduction of two-piece beverage cans. Our company, together with our supplier of packaging steel, Hoogovens (later Corus, now Tata Steel), started a large-scale project in which the companies proved that 100 per cent recycling of steel cans was possible. The use of magnetism in the separation of the steel cans in the packaging waste stream proved to be efficient. For the rest, recycling of aluminium cans also turned out to be technically feasible and equally efficient using the Eddy Current-technique.

Since the 1970s, there has been huge global development in ecological thinking. National governments started to require programmes for the reduction in the volume of packaging waste, and in 1985 and 1994, the European Union issued Packaging Waste Directives. The last directive was aimed at harmonising national measures concerning the management of packaging and packaging waste. It laid down measures of preventing the production of packaging waste and, as additional fundamental principles, at re-using packaging, recycling and implementing other forms of recovering packaging waste, thereby reducing the final disposal of such waste.

Metal packaging recycling loop. Image: Metal Packaging Europe

Metal packaging’s involvement

The question of sustainability became a key point on the agendas of all companies in the whole supply chain for food and non-food products for consumers. Packaging producing companies felt obliged to act.

Competition began, with companies comparing the environmental friendliness of various packaging materials; at the same time, in many countries, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ developed to not publicly blame a competing packaging material about being less environmentally friendly, unless your own material was being attacked.

These developments created a major opportunity for metal packaging to rebrand itself as the best packaging material for the 21st century, looking at its proven exceptional recycling statistics and cost-effective nature.

In many countries around the world, organisations were set up to communicate about the benefits of metal packaging to brand owners, retailers and consumers across Europe. These organisations often consisted of steel and/or aluminium producers and can makers, as is still the case today. In Europe, the association Metal Packaging Europe gives these national organisations a unified voice.

The national and supranational associations set up countless promotion programmes about the virtues of metal packaging in publications such as newspapers and in spots on radio and television. Spokesmen of the industry often used slogans to make the message clearer. Woep Möller, then group commercial manager of Ardagh, once said, “If metal packaging were invented today, it would be the sensation of the 21st century.” Armin von Keitz, sustainability manager of Tata Steel, stated, “Metal will only be lost on this earth if you send it in a rocket to the moon.”

Nothing works better than proving things in practice, and so combinations of steel and aluminium suppliers started producing new cans using a high percentage of scrap. Since 2021, Hungarian filler of energy drinks, Hell Energy, has used (to produce two-piece aluminium cans) its own can making plant called Quality Pack aluminium sheet from Norks Hydro, with a certified content of minimum 75 per cent recycled post-consumer scrap.

A comparable initiative is Swiss can maker Hoffmann’s production of its RecyCan, made of 100 per cent recycled steel, supplied by German steel producer Rasselstein. Using recycled aluminium or steel is, of course, fully closing the packaging loop.

A big advantage of using recycled steel is that it saves at least 60 per cent of energy compared to new production, but the most important advantage is that it demonstrates the endless circularity of metal packaging, clearer than many slogans do.

However, the packaging material is only one element. The coatings and inks used in the packaging design is another, and companies globally are having to not only ensure their products comply with environmental regulations, but also that they are constantly innovating in areas of sustainability.

AkzoNobel’s Collaborative Sustainability Challenge

AkzoNobel and partners are working together to tackle carbon reduction challenges. Image: AkzoNobel

Global supplier of coatings, AkzoNobel – also a key supplier to the metal packaging industry – recently organised a significant initiative with the aim to collectively accelerate carbon reduction in the paints and coatings industry.

Wijnand Bruinsma, AkzoNobel’s director of sustainability, informs CanTech International of how value chain partners joined forces with AkzoNobel to examine circular solutions, process efficiency and solvent reduction.

Can you mention names of some can making partners joining the Collaborative Sustainability Challenge?

“Canpack, ArcelorMittal, Altana and Kingfisher were some of the parties who took part in thenCollaborative Sustainability Challenge. This challenge is a new Paint the Future initiative designed to collectively accelerate carbon reduction in the paints and coatings industry. AkzoNobel has invited partners from across the value chain to take part in this pioneering initiative.

“It was staged in May 2022, with a 24-hour event which involved senior executives and next generation leaders from a select group of partners – including suppliers and customers – who engaged in open discussions in a non-confidential environment.

“Next to these parties which are directly linked to the can making industry and AkzoNobel, Allnex, Andrew Walsh, Arcadis, CBRE, Chemours, Clariant, Covestro, Damen Shipyards, Iberdrola, ING, Lucas Group, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Olin, Sasol, Perstorp, Renewi, Schneider Electric, Signify, Sika, University of Eindhoven, Velux, Wagner, World Green Building Council took part in the challenge.”

Not represented are retailers, the last in the value chain before the final consumer.

“Any and all of AkzoNobel’s partners, past or present, are welcome to share their views and suggestions. At the pilot event in May, AkzoNobel was able to accommodate about 30 partners. If other valued partners would like to contribute and share their ideas, they are more than welcome to reach out to AkzoNobel directly,” says Bruinsma.

Is this partner power initiative fully in line with AkzoNobel’s own sustainability goals?

“Yes, it is. At AkzoNobel, we’re aware that climate change could affect our operations, our supply chain and our customers. So, in 2017, we committed to becoming a carbon-neutral company by 2050. Now we’re turning this ambition into reality by setting aspirational, science-based targets.

“As well as aligning with the 1.5°C pathway, this means we’ll increasingly deliver sustainable solutions to our customers.

“We have ambitious mitigation plans in place to reduce our carbon emissions by 50 per cent throughout out the whole value chain. Climate change mitigation is an integral part of our approach to sustainable business and plays an important role in our company strategy. It brings risks, but also creates opportunities. In 2021, we announced an ambitious target of reducing carbon emissions across our full value chain by 50 per cent by 2030, taking 2018 as our baseline.

“Our ambitions are aligned with the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit climate change and ensure the global temperature doesn’t rise more than 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. Approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), this will help to drive our innovation and collaboration with our value chain partners, including customers and suppliers.

“The commitment includes our own operations (Scope 1 and 2), as well as Scope 3 upstream and downstream. Scope 3 covers purchased goods and services, application and use of our products, and end-of-life. Together, this covers around 96 per cent of our total emissions,” concludes Bruinsma.

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