Recycling in an endless loop: Why the food can is actually green
08.06.2020 I Vera Schmies
Due to the Corona pandemic, food cans have been at the top of the list for stockpiling for several weeks now. What few people know: Tinplate cans not only provide a full pantry. They are also one of the most environmentally friendly packaging materials of all.
This means that tinplate can be returned to the production cycle without loss of quality, and in 2018 Germany had a recycling rate of an incredible 90.4 percent. We asked the experts at thyssenkrupp Rasselstein what was behind it.
Closed material cycle: That’s how it works!
Making packaging sustainable is a major challenge – and increasingly important as global warming continues. Thanks to its special properties, tinplate from our Rasselstein plant in Andernach is one of the most sustainable packaging materials in the world.
Tinplate – never heard of it? Practically all of us are familiar with thin, tin-plated or chrome-plated tinplate in its most prominent form – the food can. Since the invention of the can and the preservation of food at the beginning of the 19th century, the compact metal container has become an indispensable part of supermarket shelves and storage cellars.
Recycling champion: Only with correct waste separation
The greatest strength of tinplate is its incredible recyclability. In Germany, the material has consistently exceeded all required recycling rates for 10 years. In 2018, a whopping 90.4 percent of the tinplate used as packaging material in Germany was recycled – in Europe the figure was 82.5 percent. This makes tinplate the recycling champion among packaging materials.
But to really do something good for the environment, the correct use of tinplate cans is crucial, explains Dr. Peter Biele, CEO of thyssenkrupp Rasselstein: “In our country alone, enough packaging steel is recycled each year to make 27 Eiffel Towers from the steel produced from it. But of course, there is still room for improvement. Every individual bears responsibility to society and should separate waste properly.”
Recycling management: First can, then car
Because the recycling of packaging steel can also save valuable resources such as iron ore, coking coal and limestone. According to a calculation by WV Stahl, 84 percent of the steel ever produced is currently still in the material cycle.
Therefore, the following applies: packaging materials must be cleanly separated and recycled! Tinplate cans belong in the yellow bin or the yellow bag – just like other lightweight packaging made of metal, composite material and plastic. Carmen Tschage, who is responsible for communication and market development at Germany’s only tinplate manufacturer, believes that both consumers and manufacturers have a duty to achieve a 100 percent recycling economy: “Consumers, manufacturers and retailers can help protect the environment and reduce CO2 in the packaging sector by choosing a packaging material that stands for a closed material cycle, multi-recycling and safe product protection. Every recycled tinplate can helps to conserve scarce primary resources and reduce CO2,” says Tschage.
Tinplate: easy to recycle and practically limitless reusability
But why is packaging steel actually so easily recyclable? The answer can be found in its properties as a metal: because tinplate is magnetic, it can be fished out of other waste particularly easily after collection via the dual collection systems in the sorting plants. This is done by means of large electromagnets and is not only very efficient but above all problem-free.
In the following step, the cans collected in this way are finally bundled into quality scrap and recycled. This is because every steel works uses a certain amount of steel scrap to produce crude steel, so that scarce primary resources such as iron ore, coking coal and limestone can be saved. And because packaging steel can be turned into a new steel product – a component of a car, for example – practically infinitely and without loss of quality, experts like to refer to steel as a “closed material cycle”. Plastic packaging can currently only dream of this.
Packaging steel from thyssenkrupp: from Andernach to the whole world
In Andernach in Rhineland-Palatinate – the world’s largest site of its kind – thyssenkrupp produces around 1.5 million tons of packaging steel each year. To achieve this, experts at thyssenkrupp Rasselstein roll steel down to a thickness of up to 0.1 millimeters and coat its surface with tin or chromium. The resulting tinplate is then delivered to packaging manufacturers around the world. Alongside cans for food and pet food, packaging steel is used for beverage and aerosol cans, containers for chemical and technical products or crown caps and screw caps.
And because thyssenkrupp does not do things by halves when it comes to packaging steel, the experts at Rasselstein have been actively ensuring the professional, targeted recycling of tinplate in steel production for many decades: Through the self-founded “DWR – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Weißblechrecycling mbH” and the co-funded non-profit return system “KBS Kreislaufsystem Blechverpackungen Stahl”, thyssenkrupp is further improving the recycling of packaging steel in Germany and actively contributing to the recycling of tinplate packaging used by private and commercial customers.
Probably the most environmentally friendly packaging in the world
One thing is certain: packaging steel is and remains a unique successful product. For centuries, it has protected canned food from spoiling, is more universally applicable than almost any other material and, thanks to its strong recycling capabilities, beats practically every packaging alternative.
“Quite striking: If consumers separate their waste correctly today and throw their cans into the yellow sack, tomorrow it may become a component of a bicycle and the day after tomorrow a car part. Recycling couldn’t be simpler than with packaging steel,” summarizes Dr. Peter Biele. “It is the closed-loop concept that we must promote worldwide in order to leave our children with an environment worth living in. And steel is already top of the line here today!”
So when packaging manufacturers are concerned about sustainability, our tinplate experts are the first point of contact! A further plus point is that the composition of vitamins and minerals in canned vegetables is comparable to fresh vegetables prepared in the same way as normal household food (source: Initiative Lebensmitteldose). The food can also scores points when it comes to save food. Tinplate cans ensure that food can be kept for a very long time without refrigeration, as they are protected from light and air inside the can.
If you want to know how beautifully liquid and solid food can be stored – tinplate in its most pleasing form – read this.