A conversation with Alexis Van Maercke

Secretary General, APEAL, the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging, Brussels (Belgium) 

AEROSOL EUROPE:  You represent the packaging steel manufacturing industry in Europe. How does the situation for packaging steel in Europe look at the moment? Do you see growth potential in the near future?

Alexis Van Maercke: Steel for packaging has been trusted by brands and consumers for decades. It is valued for its strength and superior ability to preserve goods thanks to its unique 100% barrier against light, water and air.

Today brands and manufacturers demand more from their packaging and sustainability has become a priority as we move towards a more circular economy. 

As a permanent material, steel is fully and endlessly recyclable without loss of quality, and 80.5% of steel packaging is currently recycled in Europe1. Steel scrap is a necessary component in the process of new steel. As such every single steel plant also acts as a recycling plant, effectively meaning there are more than 500 recycling plants for steel in Europe. 

Additionally, the steel industry is becoming ever more efficient, ensuring that the same amount of steel can be used to make more products.

This is why steel is the best placed of all packaging materials to reach the higher recycling targets in the Circular Economy Package so yes, there is fantastic growth potential.

AEROSOL EUROPE: What makes steel a material for the aerosol packaging industry?

Alexis Van Maercke: Just like the aerosol format itself, steel is versatile, easy to use and well suited to a vast array of applications from personal care to industrial use. In Europe’s largest market, the UK, more than 608m steel aerosols were filled last year2.

Steel offers a range of benefits to the aerosol packaging industry and is particularly well suited to innovative design options that help brands stand out on the shelf. 

Crucially though, steel is impact-resistant, heat resistant, puncture-resistant, solvent resistant and virtually unbreakable. Steel packaging does not burn as quickly as other packaging materials, making it the most appropriate solution for containment of paints, solvents and other combustible products. These are all important considerations for aerosol manufacturers.

AEROSOL EUROPE: Do you see a trend toward a particular packaging material for aerosol cans? Do plastic aerosols have a future?

Alexis Van Maercke: The future for all packaging materials will be determined by their ability to meet the sustainability targets imposed not only in the EU’s Circular Economy Package, but increasingly by brands and consumer expectations too.

When it comes to recycling, steel is by far the best-performing of all primary packaging materials.  And despite some misconceptions among consumers, empty aerosols can be collected and recycled along with all other items of steel packaging. 

So, while time and investment are needed to make some materials a viable long-term packaging option, steel is a proven, sustainable solution, available today.

AEROSOL EUROPE: What topics will be especially important for manufacturers of packaging steel in the near future? Steel is very interesting from the point of view of sustainability. Can you confirm this?

Alexis Van Maercke: Steel is extremely interesting in terms of sustainability, and the figures confirm how widely recognised its environmental credentials are. 17 countries in Europe already recycle more than 75% of their steel packaging, the EU-legislative target as of 2025, whilst the top recycling countries in Europe already average 90%. 

Steel’s unique magnetic properties make it the easiest and most economical packaging material to recover and recycle from any waste stream. 

So, for aerosol manufacturers looking for a sustainable packaging solution that is available today, steel is the perfect choice. 

In the near future, continued innovation to develop thinner and lighter steel grades which still offer unrivalled strength and protection will continue to be of interest to aerosol manufacturers looking to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Already this year, at the Aerosol and Dispensing Forum in Paris, Colep demonstrated how recent trends in light-weighting mean steel aerosols can now be 22% lighter than previous generations of cans. And Ardagh Group achieved a wall thickness of only 0.13 mm for its 250 ml Schwarzkopf Drei Wetter Taft aerosol can, saving 15% saving in materials and water.

With climate change is at the forefront of global issues, it is an exciting time for steel in aerosol packaging.

AEROSOL EUROPE: What additional reasons might be important for manufacturers of aerosol cans in using steel for production?

Alexis Van Maercke: In addition to strength, 100% barrier properties and versatility, I believe that for brand owners the superior print quality and decorative techniques achievable with steel are factors which make it an attractive option. Steel allows for embossing and debossing, moulding, printing, tactility and matt finishes. These all contribute to creating maximum shelf impact and make steel packaging a powerful marketing asset.

For canmakers, reliability of material supply was recently quoted as one of the key advantages of using steel for aerosols. Reliability of supply not only creates cost stability, but means customers can be confident they will be able to get the material they need, when they need it.

But ultimately it is steel’s sustainability that make it the ideal packaging choice for manufacturers, especially as consumer concern surrounding the environmental credentials of their purchases increases. According to Euromonitor’s report ‘Ethical Living – State of Play 2019’, 64% of consumers express a desire to make a difference through their purchasing decisions.

The production process of steel for packaging now accounts for far fewer CO2 emissions than ever before, 50% lower than 40 years ago, and ongoing work in lightweighting is making steel packaging a greener choice than ever.

Like the aerosol format, steel packaging is constantly evolving to meet the changing needs of both consumers and the environment.

AEROSOL EUROPE:  What are you doing to depict the product “steel” to the outside world as a sustainable and resource-sparing alternative packaging solution?

Alexis Van Maercke: APEAL recently launched steelforpackaging.org, a dedicated website highlighting the benefits of steel as a packaging material and showcasing innovation across the industry. APEAL also continues to attend and support industry events where we can speak directly to brands and manufacturers about their packaging choices. 

At the Steel for Packaging, a Pioneer of Circular Economy conference last year in Brussels we released our in-depth report; ‘Good Practices in Separate Collection, Sorting and Recycling of Steel for Packaging’. The report provides detailed information relevant to organisations and individuals wishing to learn more about a real and successful material recycling story.

And as talk of “Circular economy 2.0 package” and a common EU model for separate waste collection begins to take hold in Brussels, we look forward to working with the new European Parliament and demonstrating our commitment to help Europe improve its use of resources, reduce waste and achieve its circular economy vision.

AEROSOL EUROPE: Mr. Van Maercke, we thank you for this conversation.

 

1 APEAL recycling rate figures 2017 (EU 28 counties + Norway & Switzerland)
2 https://www.bama.co.uk/filling
3 https://www.packagingnews.co.uk/features/comment/sarah-damato-strong-stable-steel-aerosols-hard-beat-09-04-2019