Aluminum cans have a long, unique life cycle that’s relatively sustainable, but there’s a lot to think about when creating can labels to make sure this remains true.
Aluminum Can Recycling is Good for the Environment
It’s also good for the supply chain.
In 2020, U.S. aluminum can recycling was at 45%—a rate higher than plastic bottles (20%) or glass (39%). The Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) wants to see this number grow to 70% by 2030 and all the way to 90% by 2050.
An increase in can recycling can have a big impact on environmental sustainability. The carbon footprint for producing an aluminum can made from recycled aluminum is dramatically lower than that of a can sourced purely from mined bauxite. And aluminum cans are infinitely recyclable: they can be recycled into new cans over and over without compromising the quality of the aluminum. Cans made from recycled materials also take less time to produce—often just 60 days.
But with a 45% recycle rate on aluminum cans, manufacturers are running low on recycled material to re-use.
An increase in can recycling can help environmental issues and supply chain shortages. Brands may think that can recycling comes down to the end consumer. While that’s somewhat true, there are things beverage producers can do to help foster aluminum can recycling. And a lot of it comes down to the label.
Using Can Labels to Educate Customers
Recycling centers have to work on slim margins, and each facility can have different standards for what it will and won’t recycle. Items that aren’t recycled often end up right back in the landfill anyway.
Beverage labels on cans can help consumers know how to recycle your brand’s cans. Here are a few ways to help educate consumers.
Proper recycling imagery on labels – How2Recycle has resources on icons and indications to include on different types of packaging. Make sure your packages don’t say they’re recyclable if they’re not.
Perforated sleeves – Depending on the facility, shrink sleeves can cause recyclability issues. But there’s a quick fix to that: use perforations and show users how to quickly peel the label, discard the sleeve, and recycle the can underneath.
Easy peel poly labels – Label material and adhesive are important in the recyclability of cans that have can wrap labels. Some recycling facilities are able to remove these in processing while others aren’t. Using proper adhesive materials that will wash off in processing or using an easy-peel adhesive and instructing consumers to remove before recycling are great options for increasing the likelihood of recycling.
Instructions for separating components – If you use perforated sleeves, peelable labels, or other multi-component packaging, include instructions for separating and properly sorting the components.
Encourage recycling with fun copy – You can include information about why someone should recycle your can after consuming your beverage.
Think About Label Sustainability Early
Can label sustainability can’t be an afterthought. It has to be considered early in the packaging process.
You have to decide what type of label you want (e.g., shrink sleeve or can wrap), what label material to use, what adhesive will meet your needs, how to design the label graphics to encourage consumers to recycle after consumption.
Restrictions & Incentives Vary By State
One big wrench in label sustainability planning is the variation by region. Some U.S. have can deposits that provide a financial incentive for recycling cans, while others do not.
Local differences also come into play with different facilities having different standards for what they’ll accept. For example, some will accept aluminum cans with can wraps because they wash off in the sanitization process. Others don’t accept or simply throw away labeled cans. It’s similar for shrink sleeves—generally the sleeve needs to be removed before recycling, but that’s inefficient for many facilities.
These are areas where the upfront thought about label material and consumer education can make a real difference on can recycling.
At AWT, we carry sustainable materials and work with brands to use papers, coatings, and adhesives that maintain a package’s recyclability. Talk to an expert today.