Metal packaging

A detailed look at product characteristics, packaging types and considerations on the Italian market, with notes on recycling.

Metal packaging includes containers made from either steel or aluminium, two materials which are often - but not always - in direct competition with each other. Metal packaging is used in both the food and non-food sectors, and the choice between steel and aluminium is often determined by marketing or sales considerations, although sometimes the decision is determined by the characteristics of the product to be packaged.
Aluminium’s highest cost precludes its use for packaging low-cost goods. The use of aluminium would be unjustified, for example, for the canned, peeled tomatoes commonly used in Italian kitchens, which are not only a low-cost food product, but which also require sufficiently thick packaging to hold at least 250-300 g of product. Using aluminium for such an application would be too costly, making steel the perfect material for this packaging type.
The opposite applies to spray cans and flacons for cosmetics, in which aluminium has replaced steel because the products’ high market value justifies the use of this material (which is also preferred because it is more lightweight than steel).

Steel packaging is divided between lightweight tinplate packaging and thin sheet drums. In its turn, tinplate packaging can be further divided into three categories: open top, general line and closures.
Open top containers are used for food products like canned vegetables and tuna.
General line packaging is that used for chemical products (paints and varnish, solvents, etc.), as well as cans for food oils and spray cans for food and non-food products.
Steel closures are corona caps and twist-off capsules.
Then there are drums with capacities ranging from 50 to 300 liters (but there is a clear prevalence of the 200 lt format). They are made from thin sheet steel, with no tinplate but adequately varnished inside and out.
Steel drums can be either cylindrical or in the shape of a truncated cone, and they are used for both food (for example handling of tomatoes between harvest and processing or for packaging oil for industrial uses) and non-food (oil, fuels, etc.).

Aluminium packaging is comprised of various containers for food and other products, including beverage cans, food cans, tubs, but also tubes, which are common in both food (tomato paste, sauces, etc.) and non-food (paints, cosmetics, etc.). Aluminium aerosol cans and flacons are most commonly used for cosmetics.
Aluminium is also used in the form of thin sheet and for closures, screw capsules, easy open, etc. The Italian steel packaging market in 2016: size and characteristics
In 2016, overall production of steel packaging in Italy grew by 1.7% (in terms of quantity), for a total of 796,000 t. Total turnover was 1,479 million euro, roughly equivalent to that of 2015.
Imports fell by some 7%, while exports rose 2%. Apparent use grew by 1.3%.

• Tinplate packaging had a total production of 686,000 t (+1.2% over 2015). The largest sector in quantitative terms was that of open tops for food products, which in 2016 represented 59.2% of the total, slightly less than in 2015.

• For general line, packaging for chemical products and decorated boxes (i.e. excluding food oils and spray cans) accounted for 22.4% of total production, followed by closures (11.3%), food oil cans (4.4%) and aerosol cans (2.7%), whose market share remained largely stable. Aerosol can production is increasingly determined by exports, since the domestic market of one of the main target sectors, cosmetics, is oriented toward aluminium.

Large capacity steel drums saw production of 110,000 t, of which 13,000 t was exported and 97,000 went to the domestic market. Imports are largely nonexistent.
This packaging type has driven the sector’s growth, with +5% production in terms of weight, but more importantly, in terms of value, its 142 million euro in turnover represents a +7% rise.
Roughly 70% of steel drums are used in the petrochemical sector, while the remaining 30% are used for handling semi-processed goods or transporting products for industrial uses (e.g. food oil).

The Italian aluminium packaging market in 2016: size and characteristics
Aluminium used to make packaging includes can stock (used to produce beverage cans), foil stock (used to make thin sheet and capsules), can body stock (for making the body of cans for canned food) and slugs (for making spray cans).
A wide variety of alloys are used to make the various products, varying according to production type and use.
According to data reported by Imballaggio in cifre, at the close of 2016 this sector had a turnover of 2,866 milion euro, roughly 3% higher than that of 2015, while production by weight dropped by 17% to about 122,600 t.
Still in terms of quantity, foreign trade saw a 23% drop in exports (59,900 t) and 7% growth in imports (20,600 t). Domestic demand fell by 7% (83,300 t).
The sharp drop in production concerned all aluminium packaging types, excepting tubs. Cans (beverage and canned foods) went down by 5%, closures by 2% and thin sheet by 4%.
These results correspond to the performance of the user sectors. The beverage sector, for example, stabilized in 2016 with negligible growth in the wake of outstanding growth the previous year. In particular, carbonated beverages – an extremely important sector for aluminium beverage cans – fell by 2%, negatively impacting this packaging type. Performance of this sector was also affected by the market strategies of multinationals, both producers and users.

Looking at transactions in terms of weight, the aluminium packaging sector has had an average annual growth rate of 2% during the last decade. However, when the reduction in average weight of this packaging is factored in, that figure becomes 3% average annual growth.
Considering then production in terms of tonnes, the current aluminium packaging production presents the following mix:
- 19% containers (of which: 60% beverage cans; 13% cans for fish, meat, pet food, etc.; 16% flexible tubes; 10% aerosol cans; 2% other container types;)
- 12% closures
- 10% tubs for food products
- 13% thin sheet for wrapping
- 41% foil for converting
- 6% other.                                                    

Steel and aluminium packaging: numbers on recycling
In Europe, metal packaging currently has the highest recycling rate of all packaging materials (74% according to MPE); the goal is to reach 80% by 2020.

• According to RICREA, the Italian national consortium for steel packaging recycling and recovery, 77.5% of steel packaging consumed in 2016 was recycled. Of that quantity, the largest shares are open tops (31%), drums and tanks (24%) and general line packaging (21%), followed by closures (8%). The category “other packaging” accounts for 16%.
RICREA projects that there will be an increase in the proportion of steel packaging that is recycled during 2017, reaching 78.2%.

• According to data provided by CiAL, the consortium for aluminium packaging recycling and recovery, about 78% of aluminium packaging consumed during 2016 was recycled.
That quantity breaks down as follows:
-52% beverage cans, spray cans and other cans;
-28% tubs, trays, tubes and capsules;
-20% flexible packaging for food, thin foil and polylaminates with a prevalence of aluminium.

Barbara Iascone
Istituto Italiano Imballaggio