By: Shining Track Record *
Since it became known that plastic residue can find its way into the food chain in the form of so-called micro plastic, the general public has realized that plastic packaging is less environmentally friendly than expected and that it requires increased recycling efforts. For other materials, recycling mechanisms have been established for a long time. Packaging steel, for example, has been at the forefront of recycling for years, even compared to glass, aluminum or cardboard.
Packaging steel reached a new high in 2015 with a recycling rate of 77.5 percent in Europe (EU plus Norway and Switzerland), an increase of 1.5 percent from the previous year. As a result, 2.7 million tons of steel were returned to the production process1.
Beverage cans in particular are in high demand due to their popularity among young adults and teenagers, as well as the increasingly important convenience factor: Cans can be opened easily and ensure a long shelf-life. They are also practical in handling, easy to stack, and, thanks to their stability, they are resistant to damage – and all this at a very low weight.
Energy-saving, highly recyclable and resource-efficient
According to research carried out by cyclos HTP on behalf of thyssenkrupp, a 0.5-liter beverage can made from tinplate is 91 percent recyclable. A number of other features, developments, and achievements ensure that packaging steel is at the forefront of sustainability. The packaging processes and the material itself provide optimum product protection and preservation, which means the cans do not need to be cooled during production or transport to the end customer.
When it comes to recycling, packaging steel has been outperforming other materials for years. In Germany for example, 90.8 percent of steel packaging was recycled in 2016. “Among other things, this has to do with its magnetic properties, which enable the material to be separated from other waste easily – whether in household waste or other waste cycles.
Packaging steel is also a ‘permanent’ material that can be recycled almost indefinitely without any loss of quality,” says Christian Pürschel, Head of Communications and Market Development at thyssenkrupp in Andernach. Each newly manufactured steel product thus contains an increasing percentage of recycled steel. The objective is to establish a closed material loop worldwide, which has already been achieved in Germany and many other European countries to a large extent.
The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Weißblechrecycling mbH (DWR, German society for tinplate recycling) is a wholly owned subsidiary of thyssenkrupp and ensures that the collected steel packaging is bundled, sorted and returned to the market. The Kreislaufsystem Blechverpackungen Stahl GmbH (KBS, a metal packaging recycling system operator) is a nonprofit company which ensures that large quantities of packaging steel for commercial use (from cafeterias, hospitals, etc.) are returned to steel production correctly.
Of course, this only works if functional links within the value chain close any gaps and ensure that as little as possible leaves the cycle. “As one of the largest manufacturers of packaging steel, we have assumed responsibility in this area for many years and actively close and maintain the recycling loop with our subsidiary DWR and involvement in the non-profit company KBS,” Pürschel explains (see info box).
Another sustainability aspect is steel cans’ great capacity to preserve food and beverages. Today, it is hard to imagine just how difficult it once was for humans to store perishable foods like meat or fish for a prolonged time.
Even though we may have lost sight of this achievement due to the quick passage of time, one fact remains: A higher share of tinplatepackaging in food consumption means less food is wasted due to spoilage (actual or supposed)2. Incidentally, this also applies to beverage cans, which can be stored for longer, like in vending machines.
Yes, we can: thinner, lighter, and more material efficient
As a leader in packaging steel technology, thyssenkrupp does not rest on its laurels, but continues to research new material properties and manufacturing processes.
For example, since 1985 the weight of the two-part standard 0.33 liter beverage can has been reduced by more than a third to just 22 grams. The savings in three-piece food cans are even greater: Reducing the wall thickness to a fraction of a millimeter since the 1970s has halved cans’ weight, making them significantly more material-efficient.
With new additions to the rasselstein® brand, such as Solidflex, High Formability, or Ultra-Low-Earing steel, thyssenkrupp is at the forefront of a development that enables packaging steel with very specific properties to be configured exactly to each customer’s requirements. The Andernachers can provide their customers with more than 6,000 specifications: Their portfolio includes maximum strength packaging steels with high ductility; innovative, highly malleable steels for demanding can geometries; as well as extremely homogeneous and isotropic tinplates for closures and multi-stage deepdrawn, so-called DRD (drawn and redrawn) cans, which are printed in distortion.
However, sustainable and responsible manufacturing also encompasses aspects that go beyond the product itself and its reuse. In 2010, thyssenkrupp pledged to follow the Code of Conduct of the Federal Association for Materials Management, Purchasing and Logistics (BME) and is therefore committed to working with its suppliers and business partners in compliance with the ethical principles set out in the Code of Conduct. In particular, this concerns the recognition of human rights, the fight against corruption, fair competition and the protection of the environment throughout the supply chain.
Packaging steel is ahead of its time
These efforts and innovations ensure the future viability of packaging steel across the globe while also securing a collective approach to tighter recycling regulations. In Germany, the new Packaging Act enters into force on January 1, 2019, stipulating a recycling rate of 80 percent for tinplate. Stricter regulations will apply to all packaging materials brought to market, which will also affect the steel industry. “As a pioneer with regard to a closed-loop economy, we naturally support these regulations and consider ourselves well-positioned to address these upcoming challenges – and more – in terms of sustainability,” Pürschel adds.
Packaging steels with improved material properties are currently under development, as well as steel types that reduce resource consumption to an even higher grade. This will help packaging steel to continue to expand its role as an environmentally friendly and efficient product in the future. And not just as a supplement, but increasingly as an alternative to packaging materials with a much higher environmental footprint.
In Andernach, Rhineland-Palatinate, thyssenkrupp produces approximately 1.5 million tons of packaging steel each year. In this largest location of its type worldwide, thyssenkrupp rolls steel to an extremely thin 0.100 mm thickness and finishes the surface with tin or chrome. Nearly all of the company’s output is shipped to packaging producers around the world. In addition to cans for food and pet food, packaging steel is used for beverage and aerosol cans, containers for chemical and technical goods, as well as crown seals and twist-off tops. thyssenkrupp employs approximately 2,400 people in Andernach.