Perspectives on Packaging: Issue 10 | Steel Drums and the Circular Economy

What is a circular economy comprised of? According to World Steel, “A sustainable circular economy is one in which society reduces the burden on nature by ensuring resources remain in use for as long as possible. As a permanent material, steel is fundamental to achieving a circular economy. It is easy to reduce the weight of steel products, and steel components can be effectively reused, remanufactured, or recycled.”

Each year more than 26 million new steel drums are produced in North America and more than 254 million2 worldwide. They’re used to safely and reliably transport and provide shortterm storage of both hazardous and non-hazardous materials such as chemicals, coatings and food. After steel drums have been used and emptied, several options exist.

Some are collected by reconditioners who clean, restore, test and certify that the steel drums are ready for reuse. Each year in the U.S., almost as many steel drums are reconditioned as produced.3 Others are directly collected from consumers by scrap dealers, an important part of the circulatory recycling model.

Europe Strengthens Focus on Circular Economy

In Europe, the focus on the circular economy has been strengthened recently with a newly revised directive on packaging waste. The provisional agreement would amend the European Union’s (EU) Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste. The overarching goal is to improve waste management in the EU in order to preserve the environment, protect human health and better utilize resources.

The top priority of this directive would be the prevention of waste while the next would be reuse, recycling and other forms of reducing packaging waste. To that end, the new recycling target for steel would be 70 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2030. These targets are not expected to be a problem in most EU countries. For example, Germany already recycles steel at a rate of 76.8 percent.

A similar commitment to the recycling and reuse of steel drums is taking place in Japan. While the reuse rate for drums in 2017 was 59.6 percent when drums for environmental conservation were excluded, the resource-recycling rate in essence was 100 percent, according the Japanese Steel Drum Association.

Though the U.S. has no specific plans in place yet regarding the circular economy, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute, “Each year North American steelmaking furnaces consume nearly 70 million tons of domestic steel scrap in the production of new steel.” With proper collection procedures or reuse, steel drums fit well with the circular economy model.

2 2017 estimates from ISDI, SEFA and JSDA

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