Recycling rates for both materials are still far short of the Government's target of 50% recycling by 2000. The rate for aluminium was 8% in 1991 (ENDS Report 207, pp 11-12 ). The Aluminium Can Recycling Association (ACRA) says this has now risen to 15-16%.
ACRA pins the improvement on the growing popularity of recycling as a fund-raising activity, and also on the expanding collection and recycling infrastructure - notably British Alcan's new plant in Warrington (ENDS Report 204, p 12 ). Seven regional aggregation centres were opened in September and are offering full factory-gate prices for the material. British Alcan will then cover transportation costs to Warrington.
Meanwhile, an ACRA survey of public attitudes to recycling found that 53% of those questioned claimed to recycle drinks containers. Rates varied from 63% in East Anglia to 40% in Scotland. But while 30% claimed to recycle aluminium cans, only 7% recycled steel cans.
The steel industry has pinned most of its recycling hopes on magnetic extraction of cans from municipal refuse, claiming that a recovery rate of over 80% is achievable. John May, a spokesman for British Steel Tinplate (BST), argues that "recycling by consumer segregation receives a lot of attention but is just the visible part of the environmental equation."
In 1991, steel can recycling was running at 10%, or some 60,000 tonnes per year - only some 4,500 tonnes of which came from collection banks. In the first quarter of 1992, the rate improved to 12% as additional cans were recovered by three new extraction systems. But if the rate is to rise significantly, BST must convince more local authorities to invest in magnetic extractors.
The poor visibility of steel recycling may now be adversely affecting the metal's market share. ACRA's survey found that 55% of consumers say their purchasing decisions are influenced by the packaging material used. Ease of recycling was cited as an important factor by 42% - but while 90% were aware that aluminium can be recycled, the figure for steel was only 55%.
The debate over the merits of the two metals has apparently already been settled at CCSB, which to BST's disappointment is switching all its cans to aluminium. This means that Nacanco's Milton Keynes plant, which produces 1,500 million cans per year, will switch its three lines to aluminium. This will raise aluminium's share of the UK beverage can market from 60% to 74%. And next year one of CMB's steel lines at Braunstone will also convert to aluminium.
CCSB's decision was based mainly on the operational and environmental advantages of lighter aluminium cans. Purchasing and Environmental Affairs Director Jim McCulloch refused to be drawn on the relative merits of steel and aluminium for recycling - partly because Coca-Cola continues to uses steel cans in several countries. But presumably the company will be happy to benefit from UK consumers' favourable perception of aluminium packaging.