Our predictions for 2024

A new year, a clear vision

The can making industry is in a constant state of change but with change comes opportunities to shape a safer and more sustainable future.

By Chris Bradford, Industrial Coatings Marketing Director at AkzoNobel

In many respects, 2023 will be remembered as a pivotal year for the can making industry, confirming that time is almost up for the use of bisphenol-A (BPA) in coatings that protect metal packaging and its contents. And with an expectation that 2024 will see a return to growth in consumer demand for canned beverages following the post-pandemic softening, there is much to look forward to.

Analysts were reporting moderate growth at the end of last year and we are hoping this is reflected by the can makers’ quarterly results in 2024. The ‘big picture’ prediction was for the global canned beverage market to reach $36.59 billion by 2027 (from $25.31 billion in 2019)[1]. This longer-term growth is largely attributed to a burgeoning population, rising urbanisation, and increasing disposable incomes in developing countries leading to higher consumer spending.

However, it is fair to say that beverage brand owners are also reacting to – and indeed influencing – consumer buying behaviours to increase demand. This is evidenced by shifts in different lifestyle choices: increasing health consciousness is fuelling demand for healthy and nutritious drinks; single portion drinks are being preferred over family sized bottles; unprecedented growth of sparkling waters, craft beers, and no- or low-alcohol beers and beverages, and the entrance of new segments such as pre-mixed cocktails and CBD drinks are increasing in popularity.[CB1]  While home consumption may have fallen after reaching a high during the pandemic, ‘new’ drinks and a return to in-home entertaining have served to balance out the overall market.

This is coupled with a wave of conscious consumerism as shoppers look to make more sustainable choices such as opting for products in recyclable packaging. We can therefore expect other changes from businesses as they adapt their practices and beverage offering in reaction to pressure to reduce their own carbon footprint. Airlines who have already switched to water in cans rather than plastic bottles, for example, may just be the start of something bigger yet to come.

The knock-on effect

It is an exciting time. Where there is growing demand for canned beverages the supply of can coatings must also keep pace, and the industry must at the same time prepare for the transition from epoxy-based technology containing BPA to new generation coatings.

Ultimately these new technologies will need to be BPA-free but our vision, which we set out firmly last year, is for our new generation of coatings to go a step further. We want to avoid an expensive transition with regrettable substitutions that are later considered to be a concern to human health. We believe that state-of-the-art metal can packaging has advanced to the point where bisphenols – of any kind – are no longer required. As such, we are endeavouring to create not just BPA-free coatings but BPX-Ni coatings – where no bisphenol or bisphenol compounds are intentionally added to, or used, in the manufacture of the product.

Mixed regulatory landscape

On Friday, February 9th the European Commission released the draft regulation on restrictions on bisphenol A (BPA) and other bisphenols in food contact materials. This is the highly anticipated draft that reflects the EU Commission’s legislative translation of the EFSA opinion (April 19th, 2023) on the safe threshold of bisphenol A in food contact materials. As this draft currently stands, it effectively bans BPA from being used in the manufacture of several end use articles including food packaging coatings. It is important to note, this is a draft regulation, which can still change and some items within the regulation will require further clarification.

The US is a different and somewhat mixed story: Washington and Vermont have already banned BPA in metal packaging, while the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania are in the process of committee discussions about BPA regulation. California has a labelling restriction which is driving BPA-Ni coatings but for the rest of the US, we expect the market to continue with legacy coatings technologies for now however we hear of several brand owners who have or may move ahead of legislation.

The new European legislation is not expected before mid-2026, at the earliest, as often there are delays. However, an effective ban on BPA will impact 75% of European packaging volumes, and many areas beyond Europe will have to follow in due course. Waiting to see what shape that legislation will take is therefore not an option. Neither is it sensible to do the bare minimum required by the impending change. With an increasing focus on food contact material and consumer safety, the risk to the industry is one of constantly moving goalposts, where we are all trying to second guess which substance will be scrutinised next. We have taken the view that while the regulatory requirement may effectively ban BPA, this ban should not result in it being swapped for an alternative that is later labelled as another material of concern.

We believe that the industry has an opportunity to shape change together in developing alternative solutions that are free of all bisphenols and other chemical compounds such as styrene.

Increasing options

Our commitment to the industry has been to develop viable alternatives in preparation for the transition to a BPA-free world. Our vision is to offer the full suite of coatings with a robust safety narrative that meet or exceed all current government regulations, and that are as good or better than traditional coatings in their ability to withstand the harsh processing needs of the food and beverage industry.

Last year, for beverage can packaging, we launched Accelshield™ 700 for can ends. This was our first internal coating that is BPX-Ni. Crucially, Accelshield™ 700 has been designed for use with most beverages, including those hard to handle drinks with high acidity or those that require high temperature sterilisation processes such as yoghurt drinks, milk, and coffee. This is the first time we have innovated a coating specifically for can ends and we created a much needed, viable alternative for the widest number of uses, to support customers transitioning to a bisphenol-free world.

We also launched AccelstyleTM 100 – a waterborne gloss overprint varnish (OPV), and AccelstyleTM 200 – a waterborne matt OPV. Both are not only free from bisphenol, but also free of styrene and PFAS which are also under the spotlight.

We have several other new coatings undergoing our customers’ critical-to-quality testing, so we anticipate approvals and more new product announcements this year.

Our new generation coatings are being designed to integrate into existing production processes to minimise disruption to production lines, making the switch as seamless as possible.

While the real-world demand for alternatives is pending legislative change, the industry is busy preparing. We know that securing supply will be paramount for can-makers, so we do expect some European manufacturers to start making their plans to phase out epoxy coatings.

We are investing in a new plant at our Vilafranca site in Spain to produce coatings for the metal packaging industry. This plant will be operational by 2025, before any new legislation comes into effect, to support customers in EMEA. Sustainability is a priority, so the new facility has been designed to high eco-efficiency standards and will make maximum use of advanced automation to accelerate production times while reducing energy consumption.

More collaboration for a bright future

There will be other challenges that will emerge this year. Most will be centred around sustainability but with a collaborative approach across the industry this can present opportunities for positive change.

Cans are widely accepted as the most sustainable packaging option with aluminum being infinitely recyclable, but that is not stopping can-makers from looking for new ways of further reducing their environmental impact. Some are exploring expanding the grades of the aluminum used in the recycled content of can-bodies and the full use of recycled – rather than virgin – aluminum in a new can end profile. All of this will require the right coatings to ensure the safe protection of the packaging and the beverage contents.

The industry is in search of ways to reduce material usage and while the pace of change will again differ across the world, the efforts are in line with a new industry-imposed target of 100% can recycling, which can makers and aluminum can sheet suppliers in Europe want to achieve by 2030.

There are powerful synergies across the industry that are securing the beverage can’s future as a safe and sustainable part of a resource-efficient circular economy.

BPA has been the been the major focus of the industry for many years. The challenge it has presented, however, has shown that we can shape the right kind of change that does not have to be limited by new regulation.

[1] Fortune Business Insights: https://www.fortunebusinessinsights.com/beverage-cans-market-104706

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