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Can the can: 25 years of aluminium recycling

Back in 1989, the idea of recycling aluminium packaging, or indeed any material, was something viewed as a hangover from the ‘make do and mend’ war years or the preserve of hippies.

The UK had very little by way of any formalised or legislated policy regarding recycling. There were no Government targets, and recycling awareness was largely driven by the annual Blue Peter appeal and the antics of The Wombles on teatime TV.

Awareness of aluminium packaging itself was low. Household foil was called ‘tin foil’ and aluminium cans made up less than 50% of the drinks can market. Only the secondary metals merchants were benefitting from aluminium recycling.

Recognising the need for more formalised recycling schemes, the Aluminium Can Recycling Association (ACRA) and the Aluminium Foil Recycling Campaign (AFRC) were established by their respective manufacturing industries. The organisations worked to develop an infrastructure for recovering aluminium foil and drinks cans for recycling. They drove campaigns to encourage the British public to appreciate the value of recycling the metal, not just for the environment but much closer to home – to raise funds for themselves or a good cause. These two organisations later merged to become the Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation (Alupro).

It launched a concerted campaigning effort to promote the value of aluminium, and linked cash to the recycling of aluminium packaging, and drinks cans in particular. ACRA and AFRC, together with Alcan, which had invested in Europe’s first dedicated aluminium beverage can recycling plant, worked with the secondary metals sector to develop a national infrastructure of participating recycling centres.

As a result, the emergence of ‘Cash for Cans’ schemes was rapid, widespread and well supported by the public. Foil had its own initiatives and, while volumes were lower compared with cans, they were popular and attracted great publicity. When these initiatives were launched it is probably fair to say that cash was the prime motivator, or at least the ‘cash for cause’ it delivered, rather than any overwhelming desire to save the planet. But the concept of recycling as a ‘normal’ behaviour was starting to become established.

During the 1990s, encouraging schoolchildren to appreciate the value of aluminium can recycling played a valuable part in promoting changes in behaviour. Alupro developed resources and activities to encourage teachers and their pupils to recycle, and the UK Scouts, Brownies and Guides organisations remain some of the most enthusiastic ‘cash for cans’ recyclers to this day.

Instrumental was the exposure provided by children’s TV programme Blue Peter, which traditionally used a recycling initiative for its annual charity appeal, and on three occasions focused on aluminium cans to raise money during the 1990s – collecting more than 19 million used drinks cans. This was a pivotal moment for aluminium packaging recycling because, on each occasion, the message was passed upstream to parents via ‘pester power’.

Through parental participation and media exposure, the aluminium recycling message was becoming more widely disseminated. How many of us remember the famous fridge magnet test for aluminium cans?

The mid-1990s saw the first Government legislation on recycling targets and the start of local authority kerbside collections. But recycling targets were initially weight-based, and aluminium packaging makes up around only 1% of the waste stream, so the challenge was to maintain support for aluminium packaging recycling among the public and encourage councils and their waste management partners to appreciate the value of including aluminium in a recycling scheme.

Campaigns linking recycling volumes to local environmental and community projects were designed to demonstrate the wider benefits of including aluminium in collections. This was done most successfully between 2004 and 2009, when Alupro provided a tree for every tonne recycled to local authorities and later to two sustainability projects in Africa.

 By 2010, the increasing recognition of the value of aluminium saw most councils recycling cans at the kerbside, making it easier for people to recycle as part of their daily routine. Recovery rates increased accordingly, although trying to build on this behaviour change outside the home, and extend it beyond drinks cans, continues to be a challenge.

Long-term behavioural change is the ultimate goal and one that underpins all Alupro campaigns today. The growth of kerbside collections has inevitably led to a shift of focus away from ‘cash for cans’, allowing Alupro to focus on new campaigns to address the need for drinks can recycling on-the-go and to promote non-can aluminium packaging recycling including aerosols, foil trays and bottle closures.

Today’s campaigns are managed on behalf of the wider packaging industry and involve some of the major consumer brands.

Today, Alupro has a membership comprising all sectors of the aluminium packaging supply chain. In many ways the argument for recycling has now been won: it is an everyday habit for most people and there is high awareness that all metal should be recycled wherever possible. Consumers still need reminding about how and where to recycle, but the message has moved on to include reassurance about the value of their recycling efforts – demonstrated in the ‘transformation’ theme of the industry’s MetalMatters campaign.

The sector’s campaigns have taken aluminium packaging recycling from almost zero in 1989 to more than 40% today, recovering 70,788 tonnes a year in 2013 according to UK WasteDataFlow figures. In real terms, statistics like this mean we recycle almost six out of ten aluminium drinks cans, which suggests that attitudes to recycling have not only changed enormously, but the continued engagement has brought about a lasting behavioural change, to the benefit of all.

Rick Hindley is executive director of Alupro

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