Greenwashing and aluminum: let’s get some clarity

You hear us say it often: we are proud to be specialists in aluminum packaging. It is a material that can truly be called environmentally friendly because it can be 100 % and infinitely recycled with 95 % less energy consumption than production of raw material. 

However, recently there have been several scandals highlighting greenwashing by many companies, including well-known ones, and this has contributed to public distrust. The idea has begun to spread that even in the world of aluminum there is possible “greenwashing”: basically, that it is not as environmentally friendly as it is made out to be.  

What is true about it?  

Let us try to clarify, with a necessary “alert”: we are not a newspaper but a company that works specifically with aluminum. Although we will strive to be objective, we are aware that we appear “biased!” However, the reader will be free to filter the information as our position is clear and in the light of day: can the same always be said of those who spread news on social media, perhaps under pseudonyms? 

At the root of greenwashing: lack of certain references 

It’s easy to say “green”-the problem is proving it.  

How do you measure the environmental impact of a product? And how do you determine that one material is more environmentally friendly than another? These are far from trivial questions because they involve comparing very different elements.

And the benchmarks also change. Regulations unfortunately struggle to keep up, and we cannot say that there are even today well-defined standards in all areas: as a result, formidable “gray areas” are created in which well-modulated phrases and elegant omissions are enough to pass off as “environmentally friendly” even what is not (or is only smeary…). Let us look at some examples. 

Grey zones to wash green 

Think about the carbon footprint. Many companies boast that they are “carbon free” that is, they rely only on renewable energy. But to be truly reliable, they should estimate CO2 production not only related to the production cycle but to the entire supply chain, from the extraction of materials to the distribution chain.  

The terms “green” and “sustainable” themselves can prove insidious, because they are not synonymous: “green” is what concerns the health of the environment, ecology and the well-being that goes with it, but all qualities referring to the present moment, while the adjective “sustainable” carries with it a broader meaning, including social and economic, others to embrace a time horizon that also involves future generations.

If a product is “green,” it does not necessarily mean that it is also sustainable. This is the case, for example, with some textile materials that are passed off as environmentally friendly because they may be derived from “organic” plant sources, but whose production requires large consumption of land and water resources.  

The term “scrap,” referring to recycling, should also be clarified. We distinguish between industrial production scrap (PIR post industrial scrap recycling) and post-consumer scrap (PCR post-consumer scrap recycling), i.e., those recovered after the product has completed its use cycle and is thrown away (becoming precisely a waste).

It goes without saying that the most significant environmental impact comes from the latter, because they are much more numerous and more complex to recover. So if a material is said to be “environmentally friendly” because it allows waste to be recovered and recycled, we should first ask ourselves what waste we are talking about (and perhaps demand clarification).  

Aluminum and greenwashing: the weak points. 

Can the aluminum supply chain show weaknesses in these respects? Well the answer is: yes!  Again, these are communication “gray areas” that are worth analyzing in detail: 

When they say. 

  1. “It is not true that aluminum is 100 % recyclable.” 

The claim is false: aluminum is indeed 100% recyclable and energy-efficient. It is estimated that as much as 75% of the aluminum produced in the world is still in circulation!  

  1. “It is not true that aluminum is always recycled.” 

The statement is unfortunately true. The “myth” of recyclable aluminum has often been emphasized by the industrial supply chain, which has encouraged the vision of a virtuous circular supply chain. Unfortunately, we are still a long way from producing aluminum only from recycled material. According to IAI (International Aluminum Institute), production from raw material still stands at 66 % and production from recycled material (although steadily growing) “only” at 34 %. This is also due to two factors: the first is the stringent regulations governing some sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, where the use of packaging produced from virgin material is explicitly required to avoid even the slightest possibility of impurities.

Pharmaceuticals aside, perhaps in some cases there could be more openness to recycled. The second factor is the feasibility of recovery: and this is where the difference between production waste and post-consumer waste comes in. Production waste is recovered quite easily, because the companies that process aluminum themselves take care of it (Favia and Perfektüp recover all production waste and send it directly to recovery consortia). As for post-consumer waste, the sensitivity of end consumers when disposing of waste and the ability of local organizations to recover aluminum before it ends up in landfills come into play. Italy in this regard is an excellence, thanks in part to the tireless work of Consorzio CIAL : in 2021 it recycled more than 67 % of the aluminum placed on the market (or 52,900 tons). But in the absence of such an organization, aluminum also remains waste. 

 So: 100% recyclable, yes! 100% recycled…still no. 

  1. “It is not true that aluminum is a carbon-free product, that is, obtained without the use of fossil fuels.” 

The statement is true. The “fault” again lies with an overly optimistic narrative. The aluminum industry actually relies on renewable energy, usually hydro, especially in processes involving the raw material. One could go so far as to qualify some manufacturing companies as “low-carbon,” but to call them “carbon free” they would have to demonstrate that the CO2 impact remains low throughout the supply chain, from bauxite mining to aluminum processing to distribution (which should be by rail or electric vehicles only…). However, we must again distinguish between aluminum production from raw material and production from recycled material, which requires as much as 95% less energy! 

So: carbon free, no, low-carbon: yes (but only if the supply chain is properly managed). 

  1. “It is not true that aluminum is sustainable.” 

The statement is false. If “sustainability” is the ability to enjoy an asset while preserving the right of new generations to do the same, then aluminum is the ultimate sustainable material. Or at least, it is in power: it is up to us to make sure that it really becomes so in fact. This is only possible if we all do our part: the mining industry, companies involved in industrial applications, through recycling consortia and legislators, to the end consumer.  

Switching to aluminum is the best choice for your product packaging. Would you like to learn more? Contact us

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