Tinplate remains ahead in recycling rates

Recyclability, resource efficiency, and the ability of packaging materials to be part of a closed material cycle have all become critical criteria for determining a material’s sustainability. 

Two of the most crucial indications are the recycling rate and the material’s recyclability because recyclable packaging saves both energy and  primary resources. 

This is particularly true for tinplate packaging as the ability to recycle tinplate at close to 100% over and over again into a new high-quality steel product saves a considerable amount of CO2 emissions. 

The German Federal Environment Agency (UBA)’s findings on the recycling rate of packaging materials consistently reveal that products made from packaging steel are among the recycling champions. 

According to these figures, in the 2021 survey year, tinplate in Germany has a recycling rate of 90.2% as stipulated by the German Packaging  Act. 

“According to the findings of the most recent survey, tinplate is one of the most  recyclable materials, making it an ideal fit for the circular economy. In Germany, we are stable at more than 90%, as we have been for the past 15 years,” said Andreas Knein, General Manager of DWR – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Weißblechrecycling mbH, a subsidiary  of tinplate manufacturer thyssenkrupp Rasselstein GmbH. 

New approach for calculating recycling rates 

The UBA numbers, calculated using the prior system, revealed the following recycling rates  for the remaining packaging materials: aluminium 94.2 percent, liquid packaging board 74.9%, plastic 63.5%, and glass 85.0%. 

However, for the quotas established at the EU level in line with Implementing Decision (EU)  2019/665, only the quantity actually sent to recycling is now relevant, which means the quantity that has already been pre-sorted and incorporated in reprocessing without additional losses. Product adhesions, residual contents, non-packaging of the same material, as well as materials from other material categories are no longer considered at EU  level. 

According to the most recent report from industry organisation APEAL, the recycling  rate for tinplate in the European Union (EU) as a whole is 78.5% using this calculating method. 

The Implementing Decision specifies a new interface for calculating recycling rates. The new  calculation approach shifts the calculation point for determining recycling quantities “backwards” when considering the material flow. 

Additionally, composite packaging and  other packaging consisting of more than one material must be recorded and reported  broken down in accordance with the materials contained in such packaging. Thus, liquid  packaging board is no longer included in the recycling rates list, but is proportionally shown  in the paper, plastic, and aluminium segments. 

New approach: Tinplate takes top stop in recycling 

Previously, recycling input quantities were documented using the old calculation method, with the calculation point being the “output from the lightweight packaging sorting facility” or the “input to the first recycling plant.” 

Processing steps such as contaminant separation or cleaning, in which the sorted waste was further processed for the actual recycling step, were already considered recycling processes. According to the Implementing Decision, thus the new methodology, the calculation points are required for the “input into the final recycling operation” where packaging waste is actually processed into products, materials, or substances. 

Due to the different recycling processes, they are defined differently for each  material. For packaging, the new method results in some far-reaching changes. According  to the Implementing Decision, the recycling rates are as follows: tinplate 84.5%, aluminium 62.4%, plastic 48.4%, glass 80.3%.

“Irrespective of the initial quantities used to calculate the recycling rate, it is evident that  tinplate outperforms other packaging materials. This is primarily owing to the material’s  intrinsic qualities and package design, which result in exceptional recyclability, as well as  the functional and established recycling procedures,” said Knein. 

On the one hand, tinplate  is extremely easy to separate from other materials due to its magnetic properties, making  packaging sorting rapid, simple, and cost-effective. 

Packaging steel, on the other hand, lends itself well to multi-recycling. In practical application, this means that even packaging  steel that has already been recycled can be recycled over and over again. “Tinplate is a  permanent material in a closed material cycle that is virtually 100% recyclable. And it may be recycled almost infinitely without downcycling, thus without reduction in quality,” Knein emphasised. 

Saving raw materials with every recycling process 

DWR expects that the recycling rate will remain at consistently high levels in the future, as  scrap will be in even greater demand due to its increased use in recycling processes. 

After processing, the extremely clean tinplate scrap is transferred to the steel plant, where it can  be melted down with other steel scrap without losing quality and converted into crude steel using pig iron from the blast furnace. 

It undergoes product-specific additional processing  steps before being transformed into a new high-quality steel product, ranging from  automobile sheet metal to steel beams and new packaging. Every steel plant may therefore  also be considered a recycling plant. The material cycle is closed. 

Each cycle of tinplate recycling conserves resources and CO2 as compared to primary  production. Recycling one ton of steel and iron scrap saves 1.6 tons of iron ore, 0.65 tons  of coal, and 0.3 tons of limestone. Using scrap in steel production also consumes up to 70  percent less energy compared to primary production. Therefore, the emissions of a product  made from tinplate are decreasing with every recycling process.

Continuing need for education about waste separation 

When compared to other packaging materials, the high recycling rates for packaging steel  are encouraging. “Nevertheless, we must not rest on our laurels, but should continue to  work on improving the rate,” said Knein, adding: “There is a massive need to catch up,  particularly in the area of waste separation education. Everyone concerned – from  manufacturers to retailers, the dual systems and the recycling industry – is called upon to  step up.” 

Above all, expanding separate collection across Europe would considerably raise  recycling rates and unlock previously untapped possibilities. 

Since 2021, thyssenkrupp Rasselstein has been successfully complementing the activities of  the Dual System in educating consumers about packaging materials and waste separation.  Germany’s only tinplate manufacturer provides details regarding the manufacturing  process of packaging steel, the use of food cans as well as recycling on its website  weissblech-kommt-weiter.de.

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