The food packaging industry has a pivotal role to play in reducing the amount of packaging waste sent to landfill. Despite the growing urgency surrounding plastic waste pollution, a staggering 37% of all food sold in the EU is still wrapped in plastic. In 2020, Europe produced 20 million tonnes of plastic packaging, with a substantial 40% (8 million tonnes) designated for food packaging.

While it is critical that we find sustainable food packaging solutions, doing so cannot mean simply replacing plastic with challenging-to-recycle alternatives like laminated cartons. Such a shift could lead to increased packaging waste sent to landfills, impeding progress on key initiatives like the EU Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP). The ultimate goal should be a transition to packaging formats made of permanent materials like steel, that support a closed material loop and align with the principles of a circular economy.

Laminated cartons have been positioned as a sustainable substitute to plastic packaging; however, the reality is that they are difficult and expensive to recycle. Made up of layers of cardboard, aluminium, and plastic (LDPE or low-density polyethylene), these multi-material formats cannot be recycled unless their composite materials are separated, which is impossible to do manually and requires specialist technology. While the companies that produce these cartons claim to have invested in improved recycling infrastructure, the cost and time involved still make it impractical for recycling facilities to separate and recycle each piece, and as a result the vast majority of laminated cartons end up in landfills.

In contrast, steel packaging is highly recyclable and already recycled at scale. According to independently verified figures published by APEAL in December 2023, 78.5% of steel packaging was ‘really recycled’ in 2021, equivalent to nearly 8 out of every 10 steel packaging items put on the market. This achievement means the EU steel recycling rate target of 70% by 2025 has already been reached. Unlike those of many other packaging materials, these figures correspond to the amount of steel packaging that is really recycled, not just collected, aligning with the EU’s progressive new recycling rate calculation methodology.

As a permanent material, steel can be recycled over and over again without losing any of its inherent properties. Unlike plastic, which degrades after 2-3 recycling loops and must be reinforced with virgin materials, 100% of recycled steel is used to create new steel products, making it the ideal packaging material for a circular economy. Moreover, steel’s magnetic properties facilitate easy and cost-effective collection from any waste stream. The presence of a well-established infrastructure of local and specialised recycling facilities across Europe supports the widespread collection, processing, and reintegration of recycled steel into new products.

To learn more about why steel cans are the best choice for the environment, watch our latest video with packaging expert Paul Jenkins and French author and food blogger, Clémentine Vaccon.