The Circular Economy resonates with today’s expectations to produce and consume in a more sustainable way. The Circular Economy package proposed by the European Commission is a clear step towards achieving this transition without compromising Europe’s competitiveness.

However, to move towards a true resource efficient and circular economy, it is essential to make a clear distinction between recycling which leads to the gradual degradation of the material, and recycling which keeps the material in the loop without losing its intrinsic material characteristics. The current approach to the circular economy oversimplifies the classification of materials and products as renewable or non-renewable, re-usable or non-reusable or even bio-degradable or non-biodegradable.

These classifications are insufficient for the development of good practices in sustainable resource management: it fails to account for material degradation and its impact on resource management.

In this respect, aluminium can claim to be a permanent material, one for which the inherent properties do not change during use and following repeated recycling into new products. Obviously used aluminium has to be collected and sorted properly, in order to make it available for its next use phase.


The two pillars of the concept of permanent material

Inherent material properties are related to basic chemical components which do not degrade during use or recycling. For a material to be permanent, the bond between the atoms in the molecule needs to be stronger than the link between the molecules. For metals like aluminium, after re-melting and re-solidification, the metallic bonds between the atoms are fully restored. As a result, there is no loss of characteristics and basic properties: recycled aluminium can be considered the same as virgin aluminium.

Good material stewardship is the second dimension of a permanent material. With its Sustainability Roadmap 2025, the aluminium industry has committed itself to source raw materials responsibly, from an environmental, economic and social perspective, promoting traceability best practices . Good material stewardship also covers the design, use and recycling phase in order to have products that, after their useful life, can be easily collected and sorted for recycling, in order to maximise their re-use for new applications. They should not end up in landfills.

Our recommendations to the Circular Economy:

  • Recognise multiple recycling
  • Phase-out landfilling of recyclable products
  • Consider the whole life cycle of a product to assess its real contribution to resource efficiency and the circular economy
  • Preserve material neutrality instead of artificially promoting one material over another

Our expert's opinion

"It is obviously true that each material has its specific advantages. But there is no need for unbalanced measures to the detriment of one or more materials; this can only result into a negative impact on the functioning of the Internal Market for products, packaging and even waste. Instead we need a level-playing field and recognition for pro-active measures such as the voluntary recycling commitments made by European Aluminium.

We have already committed ourselves to an 80% recycling target for all rigid metal packaging for the year 2020 and we have launched together with our key-customers ‘Every Can Counts’, a recycling awareness programme stressing the need to recycle beverage cans consumed ‘out-of-home’, e.g. at music festivals or sports events. ‘Every Can Counts’ aims at a behaviour change among consumers and is already implemented in 13 European countries. Such initiatives contribute to the ‘permanent’ characteristics of aluminium and underline that aluminium is also in the 21st century a material of choice for our main end-use markets." Maarten Labberton, Director Packaging, European Aluminium.

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