During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as draft beer sales fell around the country, smaller breweries scrambled to keep up with packaged offerings, mostly in the form of cans.

Of course, this led to reports of can shortages and news that some of the manufacturers are working around the clock at existing plants and even building new ones to keep up with a demand that is likely to continue throughout this year and beyond.

It is funny to think that in less than a decade aluminum cans became the preferred vessel for both small breweries and their consumers. The once ubiquitous glass bottles are still on shelves, but save for very special releases, like anniversary beers, or where a style demands a proper bottle, like a gueuze or lambic, cans are the dominant force.

Aluminum cans are the most sustainable beverage package on virtually every measure, according to the Aluminum Association, which points out that cans have a higher recycling rate and far more recycled content (73 percent on average) than competing package types, like glass.

This move has meant more cans in municipal recycling streams and while that is great for the environment, there are some labels, especially those made of plastic, which can cause batch contamination and negatively impact recycling operations and even create operational and safety issues.

A while back The Aluminum Association released “Four Keys to Circular Recycling: An Aluminum Container Design Guide” and it lays out how beverage companies and container designers can best utilize aluminum in their product packaging.

“We are happy that more and more consumers are turning to aluminum cans as their preferred choice for carbonated water, soft drinks, beer and other beverages,” said Tom Dobbins, president and CEO of the Aluminum Association in a statement. “However, with this growth, we have begun to see some container designs that create major issues at the point of recycling. While we want to encourage innovative design choices with aluminum, we also want to make sure our ability to effectively recycle the product isn’t negatively impacted.”

The guide explains the aluminum can recycling process and lays out some of the challenges created by adding non-removable foreign objects like plastic labels, tabs, closures and other items to the container.

The association points out that “as volumes of foreign material in the aluminum container recycling stream grow, challenges include operational issues, increased emissions, safety concerns and reduced economic incentives to recycle.”

The takeaway is four “keys” for container designers to consider when working with aluminum:

· Key #1 – Use Aluminum: To maintain and increase the efficiency and economics of recycling, aluminum container designs should maximize the percentage of aluminum and minimize the use of non-aluminum materials.

· Key #2 – Make Plastic Removable: To the extent that designers use non-aluminum material in their designs, this material should be easily removable and labeled to encourage separation.

· Key #3 – Avoid the Addition of Non-Aluminum Design Elements Whenever Possible: Minimize the use of foreign materials in aluminum container design. PVC and chlorine-based plastics, which can create operational, safety and environmental hazards at aluminum recycling facilities, should not be used.

· Key #4 – Consider Alternative Technologies: Explore design alternatives to avoid adding non-aluminum material to aluminum containers. 

“We hope this new guide will increase understanding throughout the beverage packaging supply chain about the challenges of contaminated recycling streams and provide some principles for designers to consider when working with aluminum,” said Dobbins. “Aluminum cans are tailor-made for a more circular economy, and we want to make sure it stays that way.” 

The more breweries understand their cans and can pass that knowledge along to consumers, the easier the recycling process can become. Most breweries are used to answering the “why cans” question that comes from consumers not yet familiar with the benefits of the packaging, or might see it as inferior to glass.

Yes, aluminum is lighter to transport this reducing its carbon footprint. Yes, it keeps out light and oxygen keeping beer fresh and away from conditions that could create off flavors.

Cans are also most likely to be recycled over and over again, but only if they remain free from plastic addons and other adjuncts that can impact the process.

“While the aluminum industry recognizes that container design is a dynamic and ever-evolving field, it is important for companies to understand how design choices can impact the recycling of aluminum containers at the end of life,” it said. “Aluminum container recycling is critical to both the economics and the environmental impact of the product.”