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Mary Mazzoni headshot

For Ball Corp., Recycling and Climate Action Go Hand-in-Hand

Packaging manufacturer Ball Corp. is looking to increase recycling rates to drive down its value chain emissions, in pursuit of a recently announced science-based emissions target.
By Mary Mazzoni
Ball Corp aluminum cans

Editor's Note: This story is part of an editorial series featuring companies on CR Magazine's 20th annual 100 Best Corporate Citizens ranking, which recognizes outstanding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) disclosure and performance among the Russell 1,000 Index. You can follow the series here

Under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, nearly every national government put forth plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and collectively cap global temperature rise at "well below" 2 degrees Celsius. But as the New York Times reported in December, many are off track in achieving their goals. Further, even if every nation reached their climate targets, we'd still be on a path for warming in excess of 2 degrees Celsius, according to Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis that has tracked climate action since 2009. 

As we report frequently here on TriplePundit, private-sector engagement is needed to fill this gap. And a growing number of companies are stepping up to the plate with science-based emissions targets that support the fight against climate change. Only the most ambitious corporate targets are accepted by the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), a partnership between CDP, the U.N. Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and WWF. 

Only 210 companies have approved science-based targets on the books. Ball Corp., which manufactures metal packaging and provides aerospace technologies and services, may soon join these elite ranks, sustainability leaders at the company recently told TriplePundit. 

As 3p's Tina Casey reported last week, the Broomfield, Colorado-based company has ramped up its renewable energy procurement over the past four years. Two recently-inked power purchase contracts will allow the company to source renewables for all of the electricity used in its corporate, packaging and aerospace operations in North America by the end of 2021.

Beyond purchasing renewables, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes strategy that goes in to setting science-based emissions targets. We spoke with Ball's director of global sustainability, Bjoern Kulmann, to get an inside look at the process. 

Ball Corp. pursues science-based targets

The company initiated the process for setting its target back in 2016. In August of last year, it published its goal to reduce absolute Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 27 percent by 2030. Ball expects the goal to be approved by SBTi by the end of this year, Kulmann said. 

For those less familiar with GHG lingo, Scope 1 refers to an organization's direct emissions, while Scope 2 refers to emissions associated with the generation of purchased electricity. Ball also reports on its Scope 3, or indirect supply chain emissions, and seeks out ways to mitigate them, Kulmann said. "We work with many of our customers, as well as suppliers and others, to understand their GHG emissions profile strategies and ensure that we do not develop our strategy in isolation," he explained. 

The process involves plenty of information-gathering, which led Ball to a two-pronged approach to reduce GHGs. "When you look at the value chain of our product, it's fairly easy to see that the majority of greenhouse gas impacts occur upstream," Kulmann said, referring to metal production. "We know from lifecycle assessments and analyzing the environmental impacts of the carbon footprint of our products that there are two main levers to reduce those impacts." 

One of those levers is lightweighting—or reducing the volume of material used in packaging—and in this area Ball is already ahead of the game. The company has decreased the weight of its most-sold packaging—aluminum beverage cans—by around 40 percent over the past 40 years, and it has additional programs underway to further lightweight the can. "But we also understand there are limits to that," Kulmann said.

Recycling represents the other proverbial lever Ball aims to pull in order to reduce its GHG impacts. "By recycling aluminum, you save about 95 percent of the energy that's required to produce aluminum from virgin bauxite," Kulmann explained. "In many parts of the world, we work with our customers—and in many instances, also with our suppliers and other brands—to figure out how we can increase beverage can recycling rates."

Making the connection between recycling and climate action 

"For our material, the greenhouse gas emissions question and the recycling topic are very closely interlinked," Kulmann said. Fortunately for Ball, its most commonly used material—aluminum—receives top marks for recyclability. It's infinitely recyclable and has retained a high value as a recycled material, even as the economics of recycling become strained in markets such as the U.S.

"We know that in many countries, recycling rates are really high for beverage cans," Kulmann said. "But we also understand that we are not perfect and that in certain markets‚ in particular the U.S., there's room for improvement." Though U.S. recycling rates for aluminum are higher than for other forms of packaging, they still hover around 50 percent—meaning roughly half of this infinitely recyclable material still ends up in landfills. 

Ball is working with its customers, including big-name beverage labels like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, to increase recycling rates in the U.S., Kulmann said. It also engages with groups like the Recycling Partnership to drive waste diversion efforts and ensure more American households have access to recycling. 

Delivering real impact

As consumers grow more aware of modern society's dependence on single-use packaging—and the resulting impacts on people and the planet—we've seen a number of companies set new goals around recycling in recent years. Common targets may sound something like, "All of our packaging will be recyclable by 2030." But Kulmann said these ambitions do not go far enough. 

"The current discussion is sometimes a bit problematic," he told us. "Right now, everybody is coming out with some sort of recyclability goal. But what does that really mean? In theory, everything is recyclable. The question is: In real life and with the current technology, is the material being recycled? That’s where the rubber meets the road."

In its 2018 sustainability report, Ball called on its peers in the packaging and packaged goods industries to go beyond recyclability targets and work together to create better products and packaging.

"We believe that society and industry at large should aim for recycling rates close to 100 percent for all products," the report reads. "Instead of focusing on making products as cheap as possible and a little less harmful, products must be designed so that they are recycled easily and infinitely."

It may be some time before we realize a truly circular economy—in which materials are reused and recycled time and again, and nothing becomes waste. But, as this story demonstrates, the urgency of climate action may drive progress as companies look toward recycling to tackle their value-chain impacts. And such strong words from a company like Ball—which works with some of the largest packaged goods brands in the world—can further accelerate this push, both within and beyond the company's reach. 

"What we are really trying to push is a holistic view—in terms of not just looking at certain issues in isolation but really looking at the entire lifecycle of a product, and also competing products, to understand where the benefits and the weaknesses of our product are and how we can address those and further improve," Kulmann said. "I think we have a pretty good story to tell, but we also know there's room for improvement."

Image courtesy of Ball Corp. 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni