Permanent materials: A circular economy game changer

The move towards a true resource efficient and circular economy is an invitation to think differently about the way we produce, consume and use, argues Maarten Labberton.

More than seven out of 10 aluminium drinks cans are recycled across Europe | Photo credit: Fotolia

By Maarten Labberton

30 Aug 2016

The move to a circular economy is also an opportunity to re-invent our business models, adapt and optimise our industrial value chains and turn our waste into resources. But within this context, it is essential to distinguish between two kinds of recycling: one where the material gradually degrades, and another that permanently keeps the material in the loop.

We at European Aluminium believe that today’s circular economy package oversimplifies the classification of materials and products. They are either renewable or non-renewable, re-usable or non-re-usable, or even bio-degradable or non-biodegradable. These classifications hinder the development of good practices in sustainable resource management, because they do not take the impact of material degradation into account.

For example, once an aluminium product is used, collected and properly sorted, the material is given a new life all over again. A permanent material like aluminium can be used and repeatedly recycled into new products without any change to its inherent properties. This important feature, which aluminium shares with other materials such as steel and glass, is not adequately recognised in the European Commission’s circular economy proposals.


Two characteristics define a permanent material. The first is that the inherent material properties - its basic chemical components - do not degrade during its use or recycling phases. As a result, the basic properties remain unchanged: recycled aluminium is no different from virgin aluminium.

The second characteristic is good material stewardship. This involves a commitment to sourcing raw materials responsibly and promoting traceability.

Good material stewardship also looks at the design, use and recycling phases. Products should be made in such a way that they can be easily collected and sorted for recycling after use, maximising their re-use for new applications. They should not end up in landfills.

Aluminium has lived up to this commitment: 75 per cent of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today. Our main end-use markets - transport, building and packaging - show end-of-life recycling rates of 60 to 90 per cent or more, with further room for improvement.

Undoubtedly, every material has its own specific advantages. But policymakers should avoid unbalanced measures favouring some materials to the detriment of others. This will negatively influence the functioning of the internal market for products, packaging and waste and will not contribute to the circular economy. 

In this respect, MEPs should not put the emphasis on reducing or even restricting single-use but fully recyclable packaging. This approach would not take into account the main purpose of the packaging, which is to protect its content like food or drinks. Moreover, as it ignores the whole life cycle of the product, it does not properly assess its real contribution to resource efficiency and the circular economy.

For example, an aluminium beverage could be seen as single-use packaging, but it is fully recyclable at the end of its life, over and over again.

Today, more than seven out of 10 aluminium beverage cans are recycled in Europe and contribute directly to the circular economy. Recycling aluminium is extremely energy efficient, as it saves 95 per cent of the energy needed for primary production.

Besides, attacking single-use packaging may jeopardise the objective to fight against food waste.

Just think about portion packs and other appropriate formats that contribute to preserving food and reducing food waste. Hygiene is also a key aspect, as food or pharmaceutical products often need to be packed in single-use packaging.

The circular economy should instead strive to reduce the generation of non-recyclable packaging waste, ban littering and enable a level-playing field for all materials. It should also stimulate pro-active initiatives, such as the metal industry’s voluntary recycling commitment to reach an 80 per cent recycling target for all rigid metal packaging by 2020, provided that efficient and innovative collection and sorting systems are put in place.

We have also co-launched a recycling awareness programme with our key customers called Every Can Counts that stresses the need to recycle beverage cans consumed out of home, e.g. in offices, at festivals and other outdoor events. Every Can Counts aims to bring about a behaviour change with consumers and is already running in 11 European countries. These initiatives highlight aluminium’s role as a permanent material of choice for our main end-use markets in the 21st century.

In conclusion, European Aluminium calls on policymakers to avoid subjective preferences and ensure a level playing field in the circular economy, in particular:

•    Consider the whole life cycle of a product to assess its real contribution to resource efficiency and the circular economy;
•    Recognise multiple recycling next to multiple re-use. Multiple recycling can only apply if the material is technically available for recycling, thus after collection, sorting and pre-treatment;
•    Preserve material neutrality instead of artificially promoting one material over another;
•    Support a phase-out of landfilling of recyclable products.

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