Fighting climate change and transitioning towards a sustainable future has become a key priority for governments around the world. In the European Union, the bloc’s Green Deal, introduced in 2019, has highlighted the importance of embracing a resource efficient future and proposed objectives which ensure that these are circulated in the economy for as long as possible.
“Getting the most value out of our resources, so that our wellbeing remains in balance with nature is our goal,” said European Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius. Speaking at a recent event in Brussels, organised by the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging (APEAL) and The Parliament Magazine. Sinkevičius also stressed that recycling steel and other materials used in packaging could help the EU’s visions become reality. The event brought together policymakers, producers and brands to launch APEAL’s new recycling report “Why steel recycles forever” and to discuss the best practices for recycling steel and closing the loop.
Limiting steel in landfills
Today, steel is the most recycled primary packaging material in Europe. Across the continent the recycling rate of steel packaging has increased from 34% in 1994, to 84% in 2019. “As a permanent material, steel can be recycled over and over again and this has been recognised by the European Parliament,” said APEAL’s President Viliam Gašpar. He added, “Our vision, which is to achieve zero steel packaging to landfill by 2025, is something we believe we can reach.”
According to the EU’s Green Deal, the bloc's New Circular Economy Action Plan sets out objectives to ensure that all packaging is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030. However, APEAL’s Gašpar explained how one of the main challenges for the EU is reducing the amount of recyclable waste going to landfills. “Looking at steel packaging, some of it is still ending up in household residual waste due to the lack of access to well organised collection systems, infrastructure and citizen sorting initiatives. This residual waste is then incinerated or landfilled. We have to see that the preferred route forward is to optimise separate collections.”
While the EU has adopted a revised Landfill Directive which seeks to all waste that is suitable for recycling in landfills, Commissioner Sinkevičius highlighted how the Commission is keen to close the loop in packaging and protect valuable resources. He said, “We fully share the 2025 vision for steel packaging recycling announced last year. The zero-steel packaging to landfill approach is absolutely right, because steel is too valuable to be buried in the ground.”
“Getting the most value out of our resources, so that our wellbeing remains in balance with nature is our goal”
Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the environment
MEP Maria Spyraki agreed with the Commissioner and highlighted the importance of addressing how recycled packaging is treated. She said, “I come from Greece, where 89% of steel packaging was recycled in 2019. But 10 years ago, this rate was only 30%. So, we can optimise the existing processes by also using technology to ensure valuable materials are not lost. I also insist on embracing packaging that is sustainable by design and streamlining the implementation of packaging legislations across EU Member States.”
Maja Desgrées du Loû from the European Commission’s DG Environment echoed this view, highlighting current commitments to define recyclable packaging in legislation amid growing volumes of packaging waste, and cautioning that more than half of EU Members States are currently on track to miss their 2025 recycling targets.
Trends in the brand market
Across the world, steel producers and brands involved in packaging have become more conscious of their carbon footprint and are keen to achieve sustainability through recycling, according to Joachim Quoden, Managing Director of EXPRA, who reiterated the need for separate collection but with systems that are clear and manageable for consumers.
Clarissa Morawski, the Chief Executive of Reloop, agreed, saying, “We need to make recycling easier than disposal.” She explained how brands in the EU are also expected to state where their packaging materials end up if not recycled, adding, “We’re seeing a more stringent recycling calculation which, when taken into account, yields losses. Sorting of steel is very cheap and the EU should make sorting mandatory before materials get to landfills.”
Tim Moerman, the Sustainability & ESG Director for Europe of Anhauser-Busch Inbev, a multinational brand, shared a similar sentiment. “A lot of our beer is sold in bottles with steel closures. So, in some markets, it is not very clear what to do with steel closures. And consumers aren’t aware either. So, we as a brand owner are looking at whether we can have crates or some sort of collection technique to collect these closures before they go to landfills.”
“I come from Greece, where 89% of steel packaging was recycled in 2019. But 10 years ago, this rate was only 30%. So, we can optimise the existing processes by also using technology to ensure valuable materials are not lost”
MEP Maria Spyraki
The pathway forward
Among the solutions put forward to close the loop, APEAL recommends optimising separate collection as the best strategy to obtain high-quality recycled materials, and to use state-of-the-art pre-treatment of residual waste prior to incineration. Meanwhile Léonie Knox Peebles, CEO of Metal Packaging Europe, said that further action at EU level could help unlock the full potential of permanent materials that recycle forever. Michaël Nieuwesteeg, Managing Director of NVC (Netherlands Packaging Centre) called for a holistic approach that treats packaging not as a product but as something necessary to maintain the quality of a good.
Jane Muncke, Managing Director of the Food Packaging Forum, also explained that, while we talk about the recycling aspect, the investment to prevent waste through recycling must increase. “Only because packaging is recyclable, does not make it automatically sustainable packaging. We know that there are many different aspects that are relevant for preserving our planetary ecosystem. We have a moral obligation to do this,” she said.
APEAL’s Secretary General Alexis Van Maercke wrapped up the conference pointing out that closing the loop for steel for packaging can only be achieved through value-chain cooperation. He said, “Turning our vision of ‘zero steel packaging to landfill’ into reality will also require a review of the EU Landfill Directive. APEAL is looking forward to working with the EU institutions in the next few years to achieve this.”
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This content was commissioned by APEAL and produced by Dods