Despite being the most valuable recyclable material householders commonly throw away, nearly half of aluminium packaging still isn’t being recycled. As Michael Gove overhauls England’s recycling system, the public focus has mainly been on plastic, but a new report shows that reforms could also make sure nearly all waste aluminium packaging is recovered.
If the government improves its reforms, it could not only prevent plastic pollution, but reduce the amount of aluminium wasted from 49% to just 3%. 
In 2017, the UK recycled 51 per cent of aluminium packaging, including 72 per cent of aluminium drink cans.  While this latter figure is considered a success, it still means that the UK is wasting more than £50 million worth of used aluminium packaging each year – including £30 million worth of drink cans alone. 
The government is currently consulting on reforms to the packaging recycling system. New research, published by the think tank Green Alliance, outlines how these reforms could see almost all aluminium packaging recycled, including drink cans, aerosols, food tins, trays and foil.
The most important finding is that, to maintain quality, and therefore value, aluminium must be extracted from the waste management process as early as possible. It becomes increasingly more expensive and energy intensive to generate high quality material the more it becomes mixed with other materials.
Aluminium can be endlessly recycled with very little loss of quality. Aluminium mining and primary production is an expensive, energy intensive and waste generating process. Using recycled aluminium minimises these impacts, and we should be choosing this route to be a greener UK.
According to the study, the two most important actions the government should take are:
- Introduce an ‘all-in’ deposit return scheme (DRS)
DRSs in Europe have shown it is possible to recycle nearly all drink containers on the market, providing a clean stream of high value material to feed back into the manufacturing process. Principles for a UK system that achieves similar levels of recycling include ensuring containers of all sizes and composition are collected. This reduces the amount of aluminium lost to landfill and prevents consumer confusion.
- Improve kerbside collections
Once drink cans are collected via a DRS, the remaining third of aluminium packaging – eg aerosols, foil and food tins – should be separately collected at the kerbside. The government should standardise the current haphazard system and make sure these valuable sources of aluminium are collected from all homes across the country and recycled.
Samantha Harding, litter programme director at CPRE, said:
“As the crazy days of burying or burning our finite resources come to an end, we can finally design proper collection systems that deliver high quantities of high quality resources. That’s why the only logical approach to a UK-wide deposit system is to include every bottle, can and carton.
“An ‘all-in’ system, universal in what it accepts, will be the most economically viable, the simplest for consumers to use, help create new jobs in a thriving recycling sector, and relieve struggling local councils of the huge financial burden of waste management by making those who produce these vast amounts of packaging rightfully liable for the costs of dealing with it.”
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance, said:
“The opportunity to review the whole recycling system does not come around often. We have a chance now to design a system that works for business, consumers and the environment. Getting it right for all materials – and not just plastic – will mean we can stop losing millions of pounds worth of materials to landfill or incineration.”
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser – resources, Green Alliance (available for interview)
t: 020 7630 4529
t: 020 7630 4529
Notes for editors
About Green Alliance
Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank, focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. With a track record of over 35 years, Green Alliance has worked with the most influential leaders from the NGO, business, academic and political communities. Our work generates new thinking and dialogue, and has increased political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK. www.green-alliance.org.uk
 The research is published in a new report, Closing the loop: four steps towards 100% aluminium packaging recycling. The report will be launched at an event on 11 March, ‘Designing a recycling system that works’, which will be chaired by Julie Hill, chair of WRAP. More information is available at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/designing-a-recycling-system-that-works-tickets-56189383960.
 More information about the current state of aluminium recycling is available from the website of Alupro, the Aluminium packaging recycling organisation. See: https://alupro.org.uk/aluminium-packaging-real-recycling-aluminium-drinks-cans-hit-72-recycling-rate-data-shows-almost-100-recycled-within-europe/.
 In 2017, 118,000 tonnes of aluminium drinks cans were placed on the market, according to Alupro. The 72 per cent recycling rate, which includes around a quarter of material recovered after incineration, means that more than 33,000 tonnes still wound up in landfill or was otherwise wasted. Taking the average price of a tonne of used beverage cans in 2017 (£929, according to information on letsrecycle.com), the unrecycled amount of aluminium drink cans would be worth £30,694,160. Assuming the other aluminium formats are recycled at a rate of around 13 per cent, we estimate – using Alupro information on material placed on the market – that 6,540 tonnes of aerosols and 3,100 tonnes of food cans and 4,037 tonnes of premium pet food trays were wasted in 2017. As these are collected and baled with drink cans, we estimate that, at £929 per tonne, these would have been worth a further £12,707,377 in 2017. We further estimate that around 24,224 tonnes of plain foil and foil containers were landfilled in 2017. Using a conservative estimate that this would fetch £200 per tonne, the material was worth £4,844,891. Similarly, we estimate that and 5,293 tonnes of closures were wasted. Assuming, conservatively, that they would fetch half of what drink cans earn, these would be worth another £2,461,126. In total, we estimate that at least £50,707,556 of aluminium was wasted in 2017.