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27 July 2023

As discussions on “Recycled Content” continue to grow in scale and intensity in various fora, it is important to clarify how this term is treated in ASI’s Performance and Chain of Custody Standards. Currently, ASI does not have a criterion for calculation of product recycled content within either of its Standards. This article aims to explain why not.

The issues involved in the calculation of product recycled content are complex and interconnected, as are the very systems and cycles examined under the circular economy, and ASI has not determined a standardised approach.  In the last revision to the Chain of Custody (CoC) Standard, criterion 9.3 was updated to allow Entities to include recycled content values in ASI Documentation for given ASI Aluminium shipments as an optional component, along with the method used to calculate the value.  ASI takes no position on the appropriateness of different recycled content methods, but it does demand transparency of the method followed.

While recyclable material can be an input to an Entity’s chain of custody (as Eligible Scrap transformed into ASI Aluminium in a Remelting/Refining process), the CoC Standard does not require the tracking of input materials at the casthouse and beyond. Under the CoC Standard, ASI Aluminium – whether from primary or recycled routes – is ASI Aluminium; the Material Accounting Systems of Entities only require recording (and mass balance) of the inputs and outputs of ASI Aluminium. Only Entities involved in Remelting/Refining – which necessarily also have a Casthouse, where ASI Aluminium from primary production comes together with scrap-sourced material – require recording of Eligible (and non-Eligible) Scrap, to ensure mass balance of Chain of Custody Material.

Aluminium is a highly recyclable material, which is an essential property to enable a truly circular economy. In theory, all metals are recyclable. In practice it depends on technical viability and economic value. But aluminium recycling is more attractive than other metals because of the differential in energetic requirement (and associated cost and environmental impact) between primary and recycling production routes. It is precisely the high energy requirement of primary production (a function of strong aluminium-oxygen bonds in alumina) that makes recycling such an attractive proposition, owing to the dramatically lower amount of energy needed to break the aluminium-aluminium bonds in the scrap metal.

Thus, for aluminium, a high recycled content is often seen as a proxy for “better” (environmental) footprint of a product. This may be the case at whole of industry level, but is not necessarily so at product level.

One might expect this material to form part of a given recycled content – but access to that scrap is not equal for all, and there isn’t enough of it to satisfy future demand in the first half of this century, at the least.

Eight million tonnes of aluminium are lost annually at end of product life, and that which is recovered can be poor quality. Improving the quality and quantity of this recovered material is a critical determinant of sustainability.

Any metric for “better footprint” should recognise improved recycling (quantity and quality), not necessarily improved access to an input material, and here the role of product designers is key. In a circular economy, products need to be designed not only for their primary use but also with their end of life in mind, to ensure ease of recoverability, material sorting and contamination prevention.

Pre-consumer scrap has high collection rates, but there are many questions about whether and what kinds of this sort of scrap should form part of a recycled content calculation. Today, casthouses produce around 130Mt aluminium (primary and recycled sources), but only 80 Mt finds its way into final products. 50Mt circulates in a scrap loop prior to the final product, with some of it circulating internally in integrated facilities, and some traded. This is an inefficiency in the system – albeit a function of highly efficient processes on their own.

Should pre-consumer scrap be considered in the recycled content of a product? What about the scrap material that is moved between alloy classes or product systems to minimise or cope with “contamination” with alloying elements? Avoiding waste is a key circularity aim, so perhaps these efficient systems are right to be counted, despite the apparent inefficiency.

We can expect to see this discussion evolve and for ASI to play a role. The Can Manufacturers Institute are currently working on a recycled content calculation method specifically for beverage cans, although with no link to environmental impact, and IAI have recently completed a public review of approaches to transparency.

But we should recognise that, while recycled content is perhaps a simple metric to communicate, it is not a simple metric to calculate, and it should not be used as a shorthand for “sustainable” or “circular”. Rather, it is a piece of the larger circularity puzzle. It is not a replacement for multi-issue indicators that address complex multi-faceted issues.

Looking ahead, it’s possible that recycled content will play a more prominent role in the ASI Standards of the future (2027 and beyond), further embedding circularity principles in ASI’s full value chain, multi-issue approach.

For more information on ASI’s Circularity Work, please contact Gabriel Carmona Aparicio, Circularity Research Manager. ASI Members can also input to the work by participating in the Circularity Working Group.




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