crown beer can
Crown Holdings customers, such as the maker of this Brazilian beer, are increasingly communicating the recycling friendliness of their packaging.
Image courtesy of Crown Holdings Inc.

Seeking a new crown

Global packaging producer Crown Holdings, a long-time maker of aluminum and steel cans, is promoting the sustainable credentials of metal packaging.

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January 19, 2021

Crown Holdings Inc., which is based in Pennsylvania and has operations around the world, in 2020 announced an initiative called Twentyby30, which lists and describes a set of 20 environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals it will strive to meet by 2030 or sooner.

The global packaging producer was founded as Crown Cork & Seal in 1892, long before companies were issuing sustainability reports. Its growing, decades-long presence in the making of bottles and cans, however, always has placed it in the role of creating packaging that consumes sizable amounts of basic materials and also yields recyclable materials.

As of 2021, Crown Holdings produces some $11.5 billion worth of cans, bottles, pouches and other forms of packaging, many of which are highly recyclable or contain scrap content, but others that will likely require additional recycling support.

The firm, which ranks number 272 on the most recent Fortune 500, has more than 130 consumer products packaging plants in the Americas, Europe and Asia and 100 plants in its “transit packaging” division, which makes products to provide protective shipping.

John M. Rost serves as vice president of global sustainability and regulatory affairs for Crown Holdings, working for the firm from suburban Chicago. Recycling Today Senior Editor Brian Taylor asked Rost about how the sustainability movement might spur Crown Holdings to engage further with the scrap recycling sector.

Recycling Today (RT): What forms of packaging are currently in Crown’s portfolio? What is the volume or sales percentage of the largest types (steel cans, aluminum cans, others)?

John Rost (JR): With metal packaging (aluminum and steel) as our primary product, we provide beverage cans, food cans and aerosol cans, as well as caps, closures and promotional packaging. We also produce transit and protective packaging products. Beverage cans, for which demand continues to skyrocket, make up roughly 50 percent of our global sales.

RT: To what extent do brand owners now consistently have conversations with Crown about recyclability? If this is a trend, when did it become noticeable?

JR: Now, more than ever before, sustainability is a top priority of all major food and beverage companies—and their search for more eco-friendly packaging options is what often drives them to cans. Consumer preference toward recyclable materials has trended upward for years but has now taken center stage. Metal packaging’s superior recycling credentials allow us to provide products, both in steel and aluminum, that are 100 percent, infinitely recyclable. An important differentiator with cans is that they are not only recyclable in theory but actually recycled in practice. Consumers recycle aluminum cans, for example, at double the rate that they recycle plastic bottles. That recovered aluminum can be transformed into new cans within just 60 days, preserving resources and helping brands invest in a more sustainable, responsible production process.

RT: What are the recycling and recyclability components of the Twentyby30 program, and are steps underway to get these started?

JR: The main components of our Twentyby30 program that cover recycling focus on two objectives: to raise recycling rates in our major markets and, as a result, to improve recycled content averages in our products. We are already working toward those goals by collaborating with our suppliers, customers and other industry partners and establishing greater incentives for more effective recycling. Our partnership with the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) and Ardagh, which will provide grants to material recovery facilities (MRFs) for aluminum can capture equipment in 2021, demonstrates that commitment. We are also investing in consumer education around recycling, so that more used packaging has the opportunity to be recovered and repurposed.

RT: One of the Circularity goals involves “support[ing] increased metal packaging recycling rates in our major markets.” How might this manifest itself in North America?

JR: As mentioned previously, we are working closely with our industry partners, CMI and Ardagh, to fund additional equipment in recycling centers to capture all collected cans. We are also investing in educational programs, like Every Can Counts, in several European markets. Helping as many cans as possible to reach the recycling stream requires dedication at every level—from our side as the manufacturer, from consumers and from other parties that interact with the material throughout its journey.

RT: Considering its use of (highly recyclable) metals, does Crown see a straightforward path to satisfy recyclability concerns, or will the Twentyby30 Circularity measures provide a needed boost?

JR: With metal packaging as our primary product, we are certainly working from a strong foundation of eco-friendly, sustainable materials. The material outperforms other substrates in terms of recycling rates and energy saved during production from recycling. Yet, because consumers are often unaware of proper recycling measures or assume their recycled goods still end up in landfills and therefore don’t recycle properly, metal has not reached its full potential for recycling efficacy. We are focused on helping consumers understand that with metal packaging, every can that is recovered is able to and will be transformed into another product. If consumers can support more successful steel and aluminum recovery, they can have a tremendous impact on resource preservation and reuse. That’s a mission we know people want to get behind, so we’re working to make it as easy, accessible and practical as we can.

RT: To what extent has Crown traditionally tracked its recycled content percentages, or to what extent does the new measure involve creating new purchasing processes for steel and aluminum?

JR: Traditionally, the metal packaging industry has tracked recycled content via industry averages. We are now working with our suppliers to obtain more granular information about specific recycled contents in their products, but it is important to note that we will continue to work to increase the industry recycling rate and thereby increase the levels of recycled content that appear in new products. Implementing higher levels of recycled content in our cans will boost our own averages, but those changes must be made in a way that supports a full picture of a successful recycling system—not just our piece of it.

RT: Is there a recycled-content certification yardstick Crown will use for aluminum and steel, or will it work with metals producers on a one-on-one basis?

JR: We are working with all of our suppliers one-on-one to identify what improvements they can make and determine how we can support them in those efforts and help improve metal packaging globally.

RT: As a reason to establish Twentyby30 (beyond Crown’s own sustainability sensibilities), have your customers’ internal corporate goals been the most prominent motivator, or have government mandates in some regions been influential?

JR: Several factors drove us to establish the Twentyby30 program, customers and industry standards included, but at the core of the program is a commitment within our global business to help drive change where and how we can. We recognize our duty to operate responsibly and serve as a steward to our environment and communities, and that is why we set measurable targets we can work toward. To make the greatest impact possible, we built this program around the areas our stakeholders—including customers, suppliers, employees, communities and investors—were most invested in and where we could move the needle most significantly.