Quantity and quality

Features - Metals Recycling Supplement

Increasing the UBC recycling rate offers challenges.

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January 22, 2016
Megan Workman
© FotografiaBasica | Dreamstime.com

When the Aluminum Association began tracking the used beverage container (UBC) recycling rate in 1972, it stood at a meager 15.4 percent. In that same year, 128 breweries across the country crafted beers for thirsty patrons.

Today, those figures are much higher, with the UBC recycling rate rising steadily to about 67 percent and the number of breweries in operation soaring to 3,464, more than 27 times the number of breweries 43 years prior. The American brewing industry reached a milestone in June 2014, with more than 3,000 breweries operating for all or part of that month, according to the Brewers Association, Boulder, Colorado. It was likely the first time the United States had crossed the 3,000-brewery barrier since the 1870s, the association says.

While breweries have been adopting the aluminum can as their preferred packaging for a decade, the growing trend has made an impact on the aluminum industry, says Matt Meenan of the Arlington, Virginia-based Aluminum Association.

“What you’ve seen happen over the last 10 years is more and more of these premium brands and craft brews moving to cans,” Meenan says. “In the early 2000s, the large brands were and have always been in cans, [but] you really didn’t have these small brands in cans.”

Meenan points to a website dedicated to canned craft beers, appropriately http://craftcans.com. Founded in 2009 by Russ Phillips, the website contains a database of nearly 2,000 canned beers from more than 500 breweries across the country. Information on new canned beer releases, reviews of canned craft beers and other topics related to canned beers also are available on the website.

One benefit of packaging beverages in aluminum cans is that they can protect liquids better from sunlight, Meenan says.

In the “About Us” section of http://craftcans.com, this perk is highlighted in a question that asks the benefits of canning craft beer. Phillips lists these perceived additional advantages:

  • Cans lock in the flavor of beer better than even dark glass bottles. No light penetrates the cans, and the seal is tighter than a bottle cap. Thus, beer tastes fresher longer.
  • Cans are more environmentally friendly; they are easier to recycle and require less packaging.
  • Cans are cheaper for the brewery and distributor to ship and don’t break.
  • Cans are easier and more convenient to bring along on outdoor activities, such as camping, disc golf, hiking, a day at the beach and any other activity that affords the luxury of enjoying good beer.
  • Cans get colder more quickly and take up less space in a refrigerator.

“The stackability advantage is something customers appreciate because they’re spending less on gas to ship stuff across the country,” Meenan says.

“The recycled content,” he adds, “is another big advantage of aluminum cans. Consumers like to know that the product they have has recycled content.”

RECYCLED CONTENT

UBCs contain about 70 percent recycled aluminum, Meenan says.

Leading nonalcoholic beverage companies continue to increase the amount of recycled content in the packaging for their products, says Lauren Kane, senior director of communications for the American Beverage Association (ABA), Washington.

She says conserving resources not only saves companies money, it helps to keep their containers out of landfills.

Fifteen years ago, it took 24 aluminum cans to create 1 pound; today it takes more than 30 cans.

“The environmental benefit of both designing recyclable containers and utilizing recycled materials for new cans is principally the conservation of raw materials,” Kane says. “In addition, significantly less energy is needed when manufacturing a new can from postconsumer aluminum cans, saving our planet’s natural resources.”

She says leading beverage companies “continue to increase the amount of 100-percent-recyclable aluminum, plastic and glass beverage containers produced.

“Leading beverage companies are working with producers to ensure a steady supply of recyclable aluminum,” Kane adds.

Novelis, which bills itself as the world’s largest recycler of UBCs, recognizes this, says Nick Mize, director of global recycling for the Atlanta-based aluminum rolling and recycling company.

“As sustainability becomes increasingly a focus for beverage brands and can makers, we find our customers are looking at sustainability from a holistic perspective, from their operations to their supply chain to the makeup of their packaging,” Mize says.

He says this is one reason for the company’s efforts to produce the first and only beverage can sheet with certified high recycled content, guaranteed to contain at least 90-percent-recycled content.

Mize says, “Making our can sheet from recycled materials is better for the environment, better for our business and better for our customers.”

He adds, “The UBC recycling process is extremely efficient.”

CHALLENGING TREND

UBCs offer a high rate of return for material recovery facility (MRF) operators, says Sean Duffy, president and chief operating officer of MRF operator ReCommunity, Charlotte, North Carolina.

While ReCommunity’s incoming volume of UBCs has been “relatively consistent,” Duffy says the lightweighting trend remains a challenge for the MRF operator, and for most MRFs.

Fifteen years ago, it took 24 aluminum cans to create 1 pound; today it takes more than 30 cans, he says.

“That means it costs more today to recover and create the same bale of finished product than it did in the early 2000s,” Duffy says. “Lower sales revenue hurts not only the viability of a MRF, it [also] does not allow an operator to fund future investments.”

In addition, he says, thinner containers are harder for a MRF operator to separate because the material shape is less consistent. “Three dimensional cans when lighter are more likely to flatten much easier and cross-contaminate flat materials, like paper and cardboard,” says Duffy.

COLLECTION METHODS

Fortunately for MRF operators, UBCs can’t get much lighter, says Tom Emmerich, chief operating officer for Schupan & Sons Inc., based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Emmerich also serves as president of the company’s recycling division.

He says while Schupan’s brokerage operation has seen a decline in UBC volumes from dealers based in the Northeast and Midwest, the drop is a result of declining sales among the soft drink industry, leading to reduced generation of UBCs, rather than because of UBC pricing.

Prices for UBCs are the lowest they have been in about four years, Emmerich says. The UBC market will continue to be flat into 2016, he predicts.

However, as one of 10 U.S. states that has a bottle bill or container deposit law, Michigan and other deposit states are less affected by UBC prices, he says.

Schupan & Sons’ Emmerich explains, “It has been a steady decline from 2011 to today for UBC prices. That will have an impact on recycling rates in nondeposit states. However, deposit states won’t be affected much at all by it.”

He adds, “In terms of volume, deposit state volumes tend to not be affected in down commodity markets as opposed to nondeposit states.”

Additionally, companies such as Schupan & Sons that operate in states with container deposit laws have the benefit of maintaining long-term relationships with mills, Emmerich says. “When they’re tight with material, they’re going to turn to us, so we’re always going to have a market for material,” he says. “If you’re dealing with the right people, you’re always going to have material.”

Duffy says expanded bottle bills in some states have a negative effect on MRFs’ processing capabilities “by reducing the amount of high-value aluminum containers in a MRF’s inbound stream.”

He adds, “Bottle bills target at least 3 percent of the waste stream, and when we have low steel and changing fiber [prices], we need the positive impact of high-value products, such as aluminum cans.”

At the MRF, the high value of UBCs subsidizes the cost of processing less valuable recyclables, Duffy says.

“Aluminum is the highest value product we have in this stream and has some of the best attributes of any material,” he adds.

While recycling costs can be higher in bottle bill states, Duffy says operators often end up with a cleaner product. Incoming loads from single-stream curbside recycling programs, which have helped to increase UBC recycling rates in light of an increase in overall collection efforts, are highly contaminated, he says.

“Single-stream systems have lowered the overall UBC quality due to more contamination,” Schupan & Sons’ Emmerich says. “It’s a double negative as single stream has gotten better over time, but it’s [also] introduced more lower quality material,” he continues.

INFRASTRUCTURE ISSUES

Emmerich says to get more UBCs across the scale, Schupan & Sons is involved in community-based recycling efforts, which can help to improve quality and increase volumes of collected material.

For example, during the last seven years, the recycling company has had an aggressive campaign in partnership with Michigan State University designed to “change the mindset [toward] that recycling is valuable and is the right thing to do,” he says.

People and organizations always are willing to pay to have trash removed but tend to not want to pay to recycle, acccording to Emmerich.

While curbside recycling programs have expanded over the years, Duffy says an “untapped” stream of recyclables exists at away-from-home or single-serve locations, including gas stations, sporting events and special events.

Establishing the infrastructure required to capture UBCs at special events offers considerable opportunity, he adds.

Novelis’ Mize agrees. “I expect the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will drive an increase in sales and consumption of aluminum cans, perhaps on a similar scale of what we saw during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, when soccer fans pushed sales of aluminum beverage cans past the 2 billion mark over the four weeks of the World Cup.”

Mize says expanded recycling infrastructure, which is a goal for Novelis, can make this possible. He says Novelis operates such infrastructure in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, procuring, cleaning and baling UBCs generated in that country. The company operates recycling centers in North and South America, Europe and Asia and sorting and collection centers in the United Kingdom and Brazil, in addition to Vietnam.

“We continue to collaborate with local governments, nonprofits and others in our industry to put processes in place that will continue to move the needle,” Novelis’ Mize says.

The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at mworkman@gie.net.