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‘Recycled Metal Content’ (RMC) does not work at all for metals

End-of-life recycling will further close the material loop!

For metals like aluminium and steel, protecting the environment means making the raw material immediately available for further use at the end of each product life cycle. The metal industry is characterised by a fully integrated recycling business which is an essential part of the metal production process.  

However, both aluminium and steel have enjoyed over the past hundred years spectacular growth rates in their main end-use markets, including in packaging.  In practice this means that the demand for aluminium and steel has always been higher than the availability of scrap, even in the case of packaging where the metal has a relatively short life-cycle of only a few weeks. For other end-use markets such as the transport and the building sector the life-spans of the applied metal products are typically 10 to 50 years respectively or more so it takes even more time before the scrap becomes available again  for a new life-cycle.  Therefore it is meaningless to ask which metal product contains how much virgin or recycled material. 

Recycled Metal Content claims are misleading.  The aluminium and steel industries as well as their canmaking customers have increasingly been asked by major customer groups and other external stakeholders to make statements on ‘recycled metal  content’ (RMC) for a given product. The ultimate consequence is that we are facing claims like 'this product is made from 100% recycled aluminium / steel'!  Such claims cannot be substantiated.  However, if contrary to commonly accepted international standardisation rules the RMC percentage is not only based on post-consumer scrap (thus after the consumer has used and returned a rpoduct like for example a beverage can) but also includes turnaround scrap from semi-fabrication production steps like can sheet rolling, it may be possible to sunstantiate such a statement.

But what would be the logical consequence if the whole packaging market for aluminium and steel were to adopt such an approach, for what might be seen by some as an appealing marketing tool. It would be enough to just increase the amount of turnaround scrap to achieve a higher RMC in the final product! This would be totally inconsistent with today’s environmental concerns: the resource efficiency would be just the opposite of what we should be aiming for and what is promoted by authorities and societal groups in terms of sustainable use of production sources like energy and raw materials. However, it might fulfil the needs of easy communication and simplicity – which is often challenging in complex environmental issues.


RMC results into artificial and thus costly scrap markets

But could it work in practice even though it would be physically possible to reach such high recycled content percentages? From an economic point of view it would become very problematic because if a considerable number of producers were to adopt this approach, prices for these raw materials would increase enormously as there is just not enough scrap available to satisfy today’s total demand.


It is a simple fact of life that in 2008 total aluminium demand worldwide was 47 million tonnes, which was met by 37 million tonnes of primary aluminium and 10 million tonnes of available scrap. The European figures for steel are even more spectacular with production of 139.8 million tonnes produced in Europe met by 80.9 million tonnes of scrap are available in 2009 (from most recent data available). The consequence would be higher purchasing costs for aluminium and steel made from scrap – without any additional ecological benefit.


Why is this so? Scrap’s intrinsic value means today’s metal recycling markets are optimised. Creating ‘artificial’ markets and flows of material to satisfy specific inputs for a given product must inevitably lead to sub-optimal  allocation of resources and may even lead to increased overall – and thus unnecessary - transportation due to the relocation of material flows.

To improve the environmental performance of metals, it is much better to further enhance collection and recovery at the end of the life of a given product containing metal. Therefore, it would be completely wrong to consider a relatively low recycled metal content as environmentally unfriendly. Instead, it would be very unsustainable not to make every effort to collect and sort the used metal for its next product loop


Only recycling will pay off

In this respect the metal industries are already a benchmark: in key areas of use like building and transport, recycling rates are well above 90% and even in the more diversified packaging markets with products with short life spans the overall metal recycling rate in Europe is in the range of 60-70%. To improve yet more, the metal packaging industry has even instigated further initiatives and undertaken certain commitments like the 75% recycling target for beverage cans in 2015 and the overall metal packaging recycling target of 80%, to be reached in 2020.




So, rather than promoting ecological meaningless and misleading indicators for metals like RMC, the objective of the metal packaging industry and its customers should be to aim and support the ‘continuous life-cycle’ of aluminium and steel by boosting recycling and closing material loops even further.

Material to material loop

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