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Aluminum

A can (r)evolution

Written by By Kelly Konrad

A new product, evercan, sparks a renaissance in craft beer by closing the loop for recycled aluminum 

September 2014 - Beer snobs have been put on notice: The can is back. The bottle versus can debate that’s reached as far as the pages of Forbes and Business Insider comes down to science. Beer really is better when stored in a can.

“Typically speaking, bottles have been revered as the superior package for beer,” says Roger Davis, CEO of Red Hare Brewing Co. in Marietta, Georgia. “But with cans, you eliminate air and light, two major elements that can break down the beverage chemistry.”

Red Hare’s lagers and ales are revered by craft beer fans in the three states the company distributes them: Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Founded in 2010, the brewer has already scored awards in several festivals, including the 2012 U.S. Open Beer Championship.

The company is on track to score further successes. “We’ll produce 7,000 barrels of beer this year and are ranked in the top 10 percent in size for microbreweries by the Brewers Association,” Davis says.

When taking his passion for a good brew from the basement to the pub, the concept for packaging the beer didn’t waver. “We’ve always been in cans,” he says, noting that while using cans actually add to the expense initially, “the long-term environmental impact is worth the cost.”

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Meeting the call for sustainability

Looking to build on its sustainability goals, Red Hare partnered with a much larger outfit: Atlanta-based aluminum rolling mill operator Novelis. The timing was perfect as the company prepared to roll out evercan, the world’s first certified high-recycled-content aluminum beverage can.

Available since spring 2013, evercan has been under development since Novelis focused on recycled content becoming a larger piece of its overall business strategy. In fact, the goal is for 80 percent of the company’s entire  business portfolio to consist of recycled aluminum by 2020.

“The choice Novelis made, to focus on recycled content, really started to take place in our overall strategy in 2010 and 2011,” says Eric Anderson, director of evercan for Novelis. 

“Can sheet makes up over 60 percent of our business today. We wanted to build out enough critical mass in our recycled flat sheet [operations] to truly create a closed loop with the product.”

That closed loop is best described in the lifecycle of an aluminum can—today, an aluminum can is purchased, consumed, recycled and back on the shelves as a new can in as little as 60 days.

Increasing recycling capacity is a common-sense move for Novelis, which sees its base in that function rather than in primary or pure aluminum product. “We recycle 50 billion beverage cans a year, and that will continue to expand as more recycling centers come on board.” Globally, Novelis has spent roughly $400 million on infrastructure to support its recycling initiative.

“Between the brick and mortar and then building relationships with recyclers, it really took us a couple of years to build that infrastructure to support such a large operation like evercan,” says Anderson. 

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What is evercan?

The process used to create the evercan product mirrors that of producing recycled sheet. “Aluminum is infinitely recyclable,” says Anderson. “In the remelt process, we are able to remove any impurities and contamination from used beverages so that the ingots we produce in Greensboro, Georgia, and Berea, Kentucky, are a consistent finished product. From there, when it goes to a rolling facility, it is indistinguishable from primary aluminum, other than the much lighter footprint. It’s what our can makers expect from us.”

The next step for commercializing the product was for Novelis to partner with a like-minded customer in order to properly introduce the product to the general market. As the R&D process accelerated, Novelis looked up the road to Marietta, Georgia, and landed upon Red Hare.

“Brand owners are looking for more sustainable solutions,” says Anderson. “We wanted to work with someone locally out of the gate, such as Red Hare Brewing Co., to illustrate evercan is commercially available and viable in the marketplace and secondly, to gain a better understanding of how to be able to work with other brands that are focused on sustainability. 

“We just saw an opportunity to be able—together—to reach long-term sustainability goals,” he emphasizes.

Davis, too, recognized a great opportunity in testing the new cans. “This product ties into our sustainability goals, and it’s a better recycled product. We weren’t a large [beverage] producer [but] we sort of fit what they were looking for in order to get kickstarted.”

Together, the companies found a can manufacturer that would be willing to introduce evercan into the beverage can market. “We located one in Mexico that agreed they would help provide the cans,” Davis says. 

Conversations proceed among other craft brewers, according to Anderson. “There’s a craft brewer that opens every day. The growth is phenomenal and aluminum doesn’t have the persona it once had,” when compared with glass bottles.

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Moving forward

The future is bright for evercan, Anderson claims. “This is a global initiative for us. North America is an area we focused on first. The direct synergies we have with the craft beer industries means we have been speaking with a lot of them to help them understand the evercan story.”

Davis concurs the craft brew business is looking for greener alternatives. “The movement in craft business has really embraced cans,” he says. “In Georgia alone, there are two other breweries canning” rather than bottling.

Anderson doesn’t expect evercan to remain a limited option. “We are also working with some very large global brands that are considering the evercan as part of their sustainability platform and strategy next year. You’re going to continue to see the evercan logo on more beverage cans in the future.”

Absent any governmental and regulatory requirements around recycled content, Anderson says Novelis is thinking big. “Our goal is to have brand owners, retailers and can makers seeking to have their recycled-content-aluminum certified and allow that to become the new global standard for aluminum beverage packaging. We see it is a great opportunity to differentiate ourselves.” 

Collecting cans

“We have the opportunity to reduce the smelting or primary base of what we put into the beverage can market today. Sustainability continues to drive consumer interest and in some cases purchase intent,” continues Anderson. 

This fall, Novelis will open the largest recycling facility in the world, in Nachterstedt, Germany. “This will allow Novelis to build on our infrastructure of collecting more aluminum, and therefore it will accelerate our efforts towards our own 2020 sustainability objective.” MM

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