Moving circularity forwards

On the second day of The Canmaker Summit 2022, held in Prague, Czech Republic in early October, sustainability was once again the main topic on stage, with the focus of presentations shifting to recycling and how the industry may achieve circularity.

The programme started with Michael Mapes, chief executive officer at Trivium Packaging, who delivered a passionate talk on how the industry can continue to grow while it helps the planet and future generations combat plastic pollution.

According to Mapes, as everyone is looking for sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging, now is the time to position metal as the solution to brands’ challenges: “I was super excited about the awards last night as we saw a lot of new products and different categories that are displacing plastic, glass and other substrates. These were actually very cool products. Let’s make cans cool again.”

As recycling behaviour is somewhat embedded among consumers, he pointed out that it’s time for the sector to focus on circularity given metal packaging’s high recycling viability and recycling rates.

Mapes shared results from a sustainability study carried out by Trivium in North America, Europe and South America. He focused in particular on consumer misperceptions about recyclability. Respondents said that they believe 48% of all metal packaging volume was recycled, while the actual figure stands at 64%. On the other hand, substrates with a lower volume of recyclability are perceived more positively by consumers – respondents believe that glass has a 65% recycling rate (actual rate is 32%); liquid carton also got a 65% rate (actual rate is 26%) and plastic was given a 41% rate (compared to the actual 14% rate).

The chief executive invited delegates to work on changing these perceptions, starting with their own families and friends. As an industry, he suggested companies unite to position metal as a consumer friendly option for a wider range of products; work with governments, consumers and retailers to increase adoption; and develop bolder, simpler, emotional, and faster consumer communication to drive demand and awareness.

On the latter, he proposed an analogy between two fictional characters: Homer and Spock. While Spock represents a slow, effortful and logical figure who prioritises reflection, planning and problem solving, Homer is a fast, automatic and emotional character who is driven by impulse, habits and beliefs. Considering consumers make purchasing decisions in less than a third of a second, the messaging needs to target Homer rather than Spock, he said.

Mapes concluded saying that the sector needs to increase post-consumer recycled (PCR) rates faster to unleash the power of metal’s inherent circularity: “There’s no better time to be in metal packaging. We together have to wake up and do something different tomorrow that was not done today or yesterday, if we’re going to truly make this world a better place.”

President of Ball Beverage Packaging for EMEA, Carey Causey delved into how deposit return schemes (DRS) may impact the canmaking industry.

“DRSs are a tough nut to crack, but it is worth doing it to increase recycling rates and reduce the carbon footprint of the can,” she told delegates.

To prove her point, Causey compared the Czech Republic’s recycling rate of about 30% to the 90% level seen in countries where a DRS is in place. “There are so many opportunities and it is our job to get more countries onboard,” she said.

The current 76% global recycling rate and 50% recycled content was considered “pretty good” compared to other substrates, “but unless we hit the 90 [recycling rate]- 85% [recycled content] mark we are not where we need to be,” she said.

Introducing deposit systems is complicated as every market is different, but Causey insisted the industry has the tools to carry this through successfully, as long as DRS follows a certain number of rules. “The first three rules are all about making it fair. We are asking for a level playing field which means that rule number one is ‘all in’, all substrates have to be included. Rules number two is the system needs to be variable, otherwise it gets distorted. Rule number three is that producers have to pay their fair share.”

Another important aspect she highlighted was ease of use. In the countries where deposit schemes exist today, these work well and consumers are happy to do it. Where there isn’t a DRS in place, one of the biggest challenges of setting it up is passing through retailers, said Causey. Few are supportive of an inclusive DRS, so education is needed:

“Make it easy for everyone in the value chain: consumers, retailers… Make it good for on-the-go.”

According to her, technology is the answer: “Our industry hasn’t changed as much as we would have liked. There are lots of opportunities for us to take advantage of that. There is so much technology that is not being used, it’s staggering. It’s a great place for us to focus.”

Causey suggested looking at the interesting methods that Denmark, Sweden and Norway have developed to recycle and use the value of the deposit in ways that it brings benefits to all those concerned.

“Consumers say they want their pack to be net zero and we have a better shot at doing that than any other packaging material out there.”

Vice president of Novelis’ can Europe department, Alexander Kuzan, also addressed deposit return schemes in his presentation about the pathway to a truly circular and low-carbon can.

Introducing DRS in countries with low recycling rates and pushing the industry to split up the cans’ specifications are some of the actions Novelis is pushing for to reach carbon neutrality, he explained.

Kuzan said the company is also working with customers and suppliers to develop more recyclable aluminous solutions, in addition to considering using the same alloy to make can ends, bottoms and bodies, as this would have a knock-on effect on the quality of the scrap collected:

“Novelis is advocating the introduction of DRS schemes provided that the metal that comes back is available to the can market to recycle,” he said and added that this was the best way to push up recycling rates.

Novelis is also considering introducing two types of cans: a stronger version designed for carbonated soft drinks, and a lighter one with higher recycled content for beer and other liquids that don’t need the same internal pressure. “We don’t necessarily need one solution for all.”

While this is one way to reduce emissions, another would be to increase cans’ recycling rate as a whole.

“We see today that the recycled content of the can’s end is 43%. If we use the same alloy as the body, we can go up to 97, 98, 99%. There is also a knock-on effect. Today you have two alloys in the can. It’s thrown in the bin, it’s mixed, it’s melted, there is pollution, etc. Yet, over time if you use the same alloy, the scrap that comes back and stays in the system will become cleaner and cleaner over time.”

But to make those two solutions actually happen, the industry has to work together, he said.

“Customers want security of supply, want diversification of supply and the machines need to be tuned to be using this new solution”. This solution, he added, should be explored because it opens up a whole new dimension in the carbon weight of cans. “This is a huge opportunity and we need to grab it as an industry. We can replace the end with the same alloy as we have in the body and then go on to the tab”.

Other challenges to overcome
Chief executive of Portugal’s Colep Packaging, Paulo Sousa closed the morning presentations on the second day talking about new supply chain challenges in metal packaging. Sousa discussed how the changes in consumer behaviour, including an increased use of e-commerce platforms and demand volatility, affects the canmaking industry.

“Packaging has gone beyond being a physical barrier. It’s part of the consumer experience, it provides product integrity, as well as traceability and agility when a product is going through the supply chain,” he explained.

As canmakers know well, the pandemic and the market disruptions it has caused impacted considerably the material available for the production of cans, the logistics of getting cans to consumers, as well as costs throughout the chain.

“Shorter supply chains allow us to have more flexibility and reliability of supply. It also helps with increasing recyclability, so we need to balance it well, as we can’t be dependent on longer supply chains,” he said.

Consumer demand for more customisation in the decoration of products was another aspect mentioned by Sousa: “Customisation is a clear need and we saw this trend in the awards last night.”

He concluded that competitors should cooperate as a way to create value, and that includes working together to set deposit schemes in place: “Supply chain is no longer getting raw materials and shipping goods; the scope is broader and should include all players. Equipment suppliers enable local and customised service, while raw material suppliers are critical for sustaining the market.”

After lunch, delegates learned more about an interesting development coming from Brazil. Head of research at Brasilata, Augusto França, presented the canmaker’s project to develop plasma as a method of treating surfaces to enable more efficient application of UV light to cure coatings.

Traditionally, thermal curing has been used for internal coatings, which is costly and generates emissions from the solvents used.

One of the country’s leading manufacturers of steel cans for paints, chemicals and aerosols, Brasilata worked closely with surface treatment specialist Plasmatreat to discuss the use of its leading plasma treatment, widely used in the automotive industry, as a method of treating tinplate to provide the correct surface energy and high wettability which are key to achieving offset lithographic quality printing and machine speeds on a digital press.

Speciality chemicals group Actega was also part of the collaborative project
focusing on the coatings, which were the other key element of this technology.

“Once the plasma makes contact with the surface of the metal, its energy is transferred to the substrate and produces microfine clean surfaces that improve wetting and adhesion of the UV system,” França explained to the audience.

He also shared details of the trials which have been carried out at the production line equipped with plasma generators installed in Brasilata’s Rio de Janeiro plant.

The advantages of the technology go beyond the attractive potential savings on energy costs. Looking into the performance of both systems, while a coating line based on a thermal oven takes between 25-30 minutes from coating application to cure the sheet, UV-curing takes just seconds, and uses a fraction of the footprint demanded by a traditional oven.

“These trials will continue. As we get more informed about the product’s safety and efficiency, we will move on to testing new applications one step at a time.”

This year’s conference programme concluded with Pete Booth, principal consultant at UK design agency Tin Horse, who talked about how to deliver unique and motivating consumer propositions in metal.

His thought-provoking presentation led delegates to consider the difficulties of innovating using metal as a substrate and how attracting consumers’ attention is paramount to the success of the industry: “I’ve learned a lot today about sustainability, supply chain, lightweighting…but if people don’t want your things, it’s kind of irrelevant. You have to have that focus.”

Booth spoke at length about the project developed for infant nutrition company ByHeart which won this year’s The Canmaker Cans of the Year Gold Award in the Ends, Caps and Closures category.

Startup company ByHeart created a new infant nutrition protein and wanted an equally innovative pack to go with it. The brief from the client contained about 20 items, such as “it has to be really easy to open and reclose, preferably using only one hand; it has to be so secure that won’t leak inside a bag; has to pass a drop test; scoop should not be in contact with the product; stackable; premium look.”

Booth revealed that the first design was a plastic lid, as it is traditionally used by the industry. “Our preconceptions before we started to work were: metal packaging is really expensive to tool, really slow to change tooling, it comes in standard sizes, it relies on a limited number of suppliers… we were challenged by it.”

To improve the sustainability credentials of the product, which would otherwise create a lot of plastic waste, Tin Horse started researching canmakers to produce a metal cap. The design agency ended up partnering with Tinpac, which was able to produce several iterations of the closure as it was being fine-tuned by Booth and his team, a vital step to achieve the final design made from two components of pressed tinplate.

The all-metal packaging is not only more easily recycled, but has a striking premium look that is appealing to consumers, and also delivers the many features demanded by the brief.

“Metal as a material has great quality credentials. I imagine companies will look at using it more and more, as consumers want circularity,” he concluded.

Established more than 30 years ago, The Canmaker Summit is expected to return to Scotland next year.

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