Puoi commentare il testo solo dopo aver effettuato l'accesso.

Guidelines for Facilitating the Recycling of Steel Packaging

Guidelines for Facilitating the Recycling of Steel Packaging


Packaging: the roles and functions of a complex object     

Packaging has become increasingly important in the modern era, representing an essential element that allows products to enter the goods circuit. It is a complex object with multiple functions: as well as being a practical means to protect and contain consumer goods, packaging is recognised as an important point of contact between companies and consumers, making it a powerful communication tool to convey product qualities and brand values.

From a regulatory perspective, Article 218 of Legislative Decree 152 of 2006, paragraph 1a, defines packaging as a “product, made of materials of any nature, used to contain certain goods, from raw materials to finished products, to protect them, to allow their handling and delivery from the producer to the consumer or user, to ensure their presentation, as well as disposable items used for the same purpose”. In the same article, paragraph 1b, packaging is then classified into three categories:

  • sales packaging or primary packaging, “designed to constitute a sales unit for the end user or consumer at the point of sale”;
  • multiple packaging or secondary packaging, “designed to constitute a group of a certain number of sales units at the point of sale, regardless of whether it is sold as such to the end user or consumer, or serves to facilitate shelf replenishment at the point of sale. It can be removed from the product without altering its characteristics”;
  • packaging for transport or tertiary packaging, “designed to facilitate the handling and transport of goods, from raw materials to finished products, consisting of a number of sales units or of multiple packages, to avoid handling and transport-related damage, excluding containers for road, rail, sea and air transport”.

Among the many functions it must fulfil, packaging must therefore ensure that it adequately contains the product for which it was designed. This fundamental function involves creating a safe and suitable space for the good intended for the consumer, so that it can be handled and transported without risk of damage or contamination. Furthermore, packaging must provide robust protection for its contents from external factors. These include both physical aggressions, such as impacts and accidental contact with other objects, and chemical agents such as water, humidity and air that could compromise the product’s qualities, integrity and durability. Its ability to resist such external threats is crucial to preserving the content over time and throughout its life cycle. Finally, packaging must facilitate transport and handling of the product, from the production stage, along the entire distribution chain, to the point of sale and its use and consumption. Logistical efficiency helps to reduce operating costs and ensure that the good for which it was designed arrives in perfect condition in the hands of consumers.

In addition to its nature as a utilitarian object, packaging also presents itself as a powerful means of communication, conveying relevant information about the product and transmitting its value to consumers. It is a “communicative device” which constitutes a form of mediation between the production chain and end users. Through its graphics, shapes and materials, packaging conveys the distinctive attributes of the content, as well as the container. It provides warnings and essential information about the product, such as its expiry date or its composition (Legislative Decree 116/2020); moreover, it offers useful indications on how it should be used and disposed of, making it a real interface for interaction. In this way, packaging is not only a key element for the brand system, but an essential tool at the service of consumers.

The origins of packaging date back to the dawn of civilisation: the earliest forms of proto-packaging were natural materials such as gourds, shells and foliage, as well as hollowed-out logs and animal organs. Later, with the introduction of metalworking and ceramics, amphorae and other forms were introduced, which in some cases are still present in society today. The history of packaging is closely linked to socio-cultural changes and consumer habits. This is why, over time, packaging has evolved considerably to adapt to the ever-changing needs of society and the environment. Through technological innovation, “functional”, “active” and “intelligent” packaging have emerged. These types of packaging have technologically advanced elements added to them to enhance product preservation, the exchange of information along the supply chain, and the consumer experience for the end user.

These guidelines specifically analyse steel packaging for domestic and industrial use, as well as the role of packaging design in facilitating recycling and, more generally, the preventive actions associated with them, with a view also to pursuing the objectives of sustainability and circularity that have become an increasingly high priority in recent years within the European Union.


Prevention and recycling: designing packaging for circularity

The reference legislation for the management of packaging waste is Directive 94/62/EC, which is continuously updated.This Directive establishes the regulatory basis for the management of packaging in the European Union. In particular, it emphasises the prevention of the generation of packaging waste by promoting lightweight packaging solutions and recycling. It establishes a preferential hierarchy in waste management, with the main objective of preventing waste generation through reuse and recycling, encouraging packaging design that minimises the volume and weight necessary to ensure product safety, hygiene and acceptability, with the aim of conserving resources and minimising environmental load.

Among the most recent updates, Directive (EU) 2018/852 – known as the “Packaging Waste Directive” – further strengthens the objectives for the sustainable management of packaging and the waste generated by it. Among the most significant changes are more ambitious recycling targets, a greater emphasis on waste prevention through packaging design, and a stronger emphasis on extended producer responsibility. This last point means that producers must be more actively involved in the entire life cycle of their products, including disposing of them responsibly. In addition, the directive supports the implementation of return and/or collection systems for used packaging and packaging waste, actively involving producers and consumers. This promotes a circular logic that considers the complete life cycle of the product, ensuring responsible and sustainable management of packaging materials.

In the last decade, the European Union has been actively promoting not only the concept of sustainability but also that of circular economy, focusing on reducing waste and reusing resources to mitigate the impacts of production and consumption on the environment. A significant step in this direction is the “Circular Economy Action Plan” adopted in December 2015. This plan has become one of the key pillars of Europe’s “Green Deal”, an ambitious programme to make Europe more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

The Circular Economy Action Plan aims to promote the principles of circularity and raise awareness among producers and consumers. Its 54 concrete actions include labelling, improving material efficiency, promoting high reparability of products, as well as the responsible handling of products at the end of their life cycle. A key element of this approach is the focus on designing products so that they are durable, reliable, reusable, repairable and energy efficient. Such measures not only contribute to reducing waste, but also to achieving the climate goals of the Green Deal.

In order to apply these design strategies to the packaging sector and design containers in a circular manner, two approaches can be taken for prevention and promotion of recycling. Firstly, by partial or total use of materials that have already been recycled. Secondly, by considering the recyclability of packaging from its conception, anticipating how the object will be disposed of and recycled at the end of its life cycle and designing its characteristics accordingly – for example in terms of separable components, eliminating non-recyclable elements, glues or toxic materials, etc. The first approach is called “Design from Recycling”, and the second is “Design for Recycling”.

Design from Recycling emphasises the importance of using existing materials that have been recovered and recycled, meaning the waste is collected and recycled, which reduces the need to extract and produce virgin raw materials. Meanwhile, Design for Recycling assumes that the packaging’s recyclability should be a mandatory requirement from the initial stage of its development, in addition to rethinking the object or parts of it, so as to prolong its useful life, for example by encouraging reuse. In this regard, it is crucial for designers, engineers, manufacturers and consumers to be involved in the design process.

Moving from a linear to a circular approach, which considers the overall life cycle of an object, is fundamental for the creation of circular packaging. The aim is to ensure that the packaging has a birth and, ideally, a continuous rebirth – “from cradle to cradle” – moving the moment when it becomes waste as far into the future as possible. In addition to focusing on the object itself and the production and transformation processes, packaging design should therefore maintain a broader, more systemic vision and incorporate a view of how the packaging and its various parts will be reused or recycled right from the very beginning of the process.


Steel packaging: promoting recycling through design

The aim of this document is to provide useful design guidelines for designers and companies involved in the production and use of steel packaging in order to facilitate the recycling process.

The following guidelines are part of the prevention strategies promoted by CONAI as part of the “Pensare Futuro” (“Thinking the Future”) project which includes a series of packaging eco-design tools made available to firms.

The initiatives to facilitate the recycling of packaging take the form of one of the seven prevention levers promoted by the consortium. The prevention levers are meant as criteria for researching, designing and evaluating solutions that can lead to preventing the environmental impact of packaging in its life cycle, and they are as follows:

  • saving raw material
  • reuse
  • use of recycled material
  • optimising logistics
  • facilitating recycling activities (the focus of this document)
  • simplifying the packaging system
  • optimising production processes.

The adopted approach is to provide guidelines and checklists to support designers and companies in the decision-making process, bearing in mind the complexity and variety that packaging presents in multiple situations, such as structure, composition and performance, and that lead to consequent differences in end-of-life management. It is therefore useful, during the design phase, to ensure there is an effective improvement in environmental performance in terms of recyclability. It is also essential to consult with the stakeholders in the reference chain and to verify the results obtained throughout the life cycle of the packaging-product pair, with the support of experts in the sector. Furthermore, the recyclability of packaging requires consideration of the real possibilities offered by the current sorting and recycling technologies installed at an industrial level in a given geographical location. CONAI will therefore provide periodic updates to the provided indications. Knowledge of the processes and their specific characteristics helps to understand the consequences of the design choices that influence main phases of the recycling operation, and to assess what the most suitable alternatives may be to optimise the process.

The document is divided into four chapters, beginning with a general introduction to steel packaging, then a description of the steel production process, the main semi-finished products and types of steel packaging, and finally its collection and recycling process, in order to provide a clear explanation of the motivations behind the design guidelines proposed in the concluding chapter. This structure has been envisioned to meet the needs of designers and companies, highlighting the focus points that have led to the proposed design guidelines.

The first part describes the characteristics of steel and the primary and secondary production processes of the material, semi-finished products for the production of steel packaging, and the main types of packaging.

The second part describes the processes of collection, sorting and recycling of steel packaging, looking at the main modes of the supply chain and examining the various treatments used throughout the process.

The third and fourth parts present useful guidelines for facilitating the recycling of steel packaging destined for domestic use and delivered to the municipal separate waste collection. The guidelines provide designers with checklists which are useful both at the design and development stage of packaging, and as a tool for evaluating and improving existing packaging.

These guidelines offer designers and technicians a checklist intended to be used both during the production and development stage of the packaging, and as a possible evaluation tool to identify areas for improvement. In this regard, the guidelines presented here are intended to highlight problems and possible solutions, but do not claim to be exhaustive or to address every conceivable situation in an individual manner. For this reason, all the references of the sources consulted for the drafting of the document are given at the end of the document, as well as the regulatory information relevant for more in-depth coverage of what is considered in the various chapters. Furthermore, the prepared guidelines relate to the situation in Italy; it is therefore necessary to consider that some specificities of the supply chain may differ in their organisational or technological nature compared to other EU countries.



Steel packaging


Steel packaging has numerous advantages in terms of its intrinsic properties and recyclability. One of its main characteristics is that, like other metal containers, it can be recycled in a potentially infinite way, as it is possible to reintroduce the second raw material into new production cycles, guaranteeing high levels of quality and properties similar to those of virgin steel, even after countless recovery cycles.

In general, steel obtained from recycling is used in sectors other than packaging, since it must meet specific standards and technical requirements that make virgin steel the raw material of choice – especially if the packaging will contain foodstuffs. Nonetheless, making use of recycled material wherever possible reduces the consumption of resources compared to producing virgin raw materials, and has significant environmental benefits. This is why the ANFIMA trade association encourages its steel packaging manufacturers and their customers to use the “Metal Recycles Forever” brand, created by the Metal Packaging Europe (MPE) association. Furthermore, the possibility of regenerating some existing packaging and making it reusable reduces the need to produce new containers and the associated consumption of resources.

Through efficient resource management, both in terms of materials and energy, together with appropriate design, the use of steel packaging can therefore make an effective contribution to reducing the environmental impact of the packaging sector and support the transition towards increasingly circular processes.

Looking at the picture in Italy, steel packaging accounts for about 2% of steel production. In 2022, around 21 million tonnes of steel were produced in the country, making it the second largest producer in the European Union after Germany. From this production, more than 500,000 tonnes of steel packaging were placed on the market, highlighting the material’s extensive use in the packaging for a wide range of products. Post-consumption collection of this packaging achieved remarkable results: more than 80% of the quantities released for consumption (around 420,000 tonnes) were sent for recycling. These figures are testament to the effectiveness of the collection and recycling system in the steel sector.

Steel: characteristics and properties

Steel is a highly versatile material: in addition to domestic and industrial packaging, it is used in a variety of sectors, such as construction, the automotive and transport industries, and the production of tools and machinery. It is also used in the manufacture of supports for solar panels, wind turbines, dams and electric vehicles, all of which are of fundamental importance for the energy transition.

Owing to its high resistance to corrosion, steel is ideal for items exposed to weathering and adverse environmental conditions. Its high tensile strength and wear resistance also make it suitable for high pressure and mechanical stress applications. By modifying its composition, it is possible to obtain different characteristics that can be adapted to specific uses. Steel is a complex metal alloy consisting mainly of iron and carbon, with physical and mechanical properties that vary depending on the presence of other elements.

The amount of carbon in the alloy generally varies between 0.2% and 2%, however, if there is more carbon present, the steel takes on a different mechanical behaviour, typically being more brittle and classified as cast iron. The composition of steel can be modified by adding other alloying elements such as boron, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, niobium, titanium or vanadium. These elements specifically influence the properties of the steel, for example, improving its corrosion resistance by adding nickel and titanium, or improving its tensile strength by adding molybdenum and chromium. Other elements such as nickel, manganese and chromium can help improve toughness and hardness. In addition, steel properties can also be modified through production processes and heat treatment such as rolling and tempering, to optimise the steel’s yield strength, ductility or stiffness.

Due to its versatility, steel can easily be processed into different shapes and sizes to meet various requirements, which also makes it a flexible and cost-effective choice for the packaging industry. For packaging, “mild steels” with their low carbon content and high processability are the most commonly used. The material’s effectiveness in protecting products from shocks and damage during transport, resisting mechanical stress, scratches and abrasion, continues to make it a popular choice for the industry. In addition, steel provides an effective barrier against external agents, reducing the risk of oxidation and degradation of the packaged product. These features make it ideal for the packaging of chemical and pharmaceutical products, where a barrier against aggressive agents such as acids or caustic substances is a requirement. Steel is also used in the food and beverage industry, usually employing alloys such as stainless steels and steels coated with oxides such as chromium and tin. In some cases, high-carbon alloys (cast irons) and alloys containing copper are used.

Production of steel

During 2022, global steel production reached 1.9 billion tonnes, highlighting the significant role of the material in the contemporary industrial landscape. As mentioned above, steel is of fundamental importance in several industrial sectors, and especially in construction and infrastructure.

Worldwide, approximately 70% of the steelmaking process is conducted by blast furnace (primary production), using iron ore as a virgin raw material. The remaining 30% comes from electric arc processes, using ferrous scrap as a secondary raw material (secondary production).


Production by blast furnace

The blast furnace is the oldest and currently most widespread technology for the production of cast iron and steel from iron ore, but it is also the most energy-intensive. In the blast furnace, a complex iron reduction reaction takes place at extremely high temperatures of over 1,500°C.

The blast furnace process is based on the use of iron ore, coke (obtained from hard coal) and limestone. Coke is the result of a distillation process that hard coal undergoes before being used in the blast furnace; it is particularly resistant to heat and is essential for turning iron ore into cast iron.

Coke, together with iron ore and other substances, is fed into the blast furnace to produce liquid cast iron, which is the intermediate product for steel production. Once the liquid cast iron is obtained, it is transferred to the steelworks by specially designed railway cars, known as “torpedo cars”.

To create steel, the cast iron must then undergo a carbon purification operation. This is done by pouring the liquid cast iron into large converters, and reducing the carbon content through by blowing oxygen.

The resulting liquid steel is then transferred to the continuous casting plant, where it is poured into special ingot moulds to start the solidification process. During this process, the steel cools and solidifies, resulting in the formation of semi-finished products known as slabs. These are then processed into hot rolled products, which are later used in various industrial applications.


Production by electric furnace

In addition to blast furnaces, cast iron and steel are also produced by electric arc furnaces. The use of this type of furnace is especially prevalent in the Italian iron and steel sector, which consists of many small and medium-sized companies located close to steel consumption centres.

The production process mainly utilises ferrous scrap from secondary raw materials, which reduces the need for virgin raw materials with their greater impact in terms of resource consumption and emissions. The ferrous scrap used in the process generally comes from demolition of industrial, civil and naval structures, disassembly of cars and household appliances, processing scraps, and collection of packaging and other household waste.

At the beginning of the production process, the scrap is sorted and reclaimed to ensure adequate quality of the input material. After that, the material is melted in the electric furnace: it is loaded into the furnace, brought to melting temperature and then the production slag that rises to the surface is extracted.

During the melting, which takes place continuously, the scrap is combined with alloying elements to obtain the desired steel composition. The molten steel is then extracted and subjected to further processing steps, where other elements can be added to further improve its characteristics.

Finally, the semi-finished products obtained at the end of the process, often in the form of billets, are produced by extrusion. These semi-finished products form the basis for a wide variety of industrial applications, helping to breathe new life into post-consumption scrap and reducing the environmental impact of the steel production process.


Environmental impacts of steel production

Steel production has significant environmental impacts at several stages of the process, from the initial mining and processing stage to actual production. It requires significant amounts of energy and generates emissions that affect climate, air quality, soil and groundwater conditions. Globally, the 1.95 billion tonnes of steel produced in 2021 generated approximately 3.7 billion tonnes of CO2, roughly 10% of the world’s total fossil fuel emissions.

However, most of these emissions – about 92% – are attributable to primary production, mainly from full-cycle processes with blast furnace and converter, which corresponds to approximately 75% of the world’s production; only 8% relate to secondary production in electric arc furnace plants fed with scrap iron, accounting for about 25% of the world’s production.

In primary production, the emissions are on average 2.2 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of crude steel produced, which is much higher than for secondary production, which is between 0.1 and 0.7 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of steel, depending on the proportion of energy from renewable sources in the power generation mix used by the plants.

According to a recent estimate (Wang P. et al., 2021), the technological improvements in primary production and growth in secondary production have allowed CO2 emissions per tonne of steel to be reduced by about 70% over the last century. Over time, the steel industry has significantly reduced production-related emissions, although the exponential growth in global production has substantially counteracted the positive effects in terms of climate impact.


Materials for steel packaging

Various types of semi-finished products can be obtained from steel production. Long rolled products include beams, wire rods and reinforcing bars, while flat-rolled products consist of steel strips, usually stored in the form of wound coils. Examples of this type of rolled products include tinplate or chrome plated strips, and other packaging sheets.



Tinplate consists of a sheet of mild steel, coated on both sides with an even, thin layer of tin, a few hundredths of a millimetre thick.

The tinning process takes place in a continuous cycle: the steel strip is passed through a series of tanks containing tin sulphate acid, and it is coated with a tin oxide film through electrolysis and other subsequent chemical processes. Steels that will come into contact with food are further treated and lacquered.

The properties of tinplate make it one of the most widely used semi-finished products for the production of packaging. It is used especially in the food industry, as it meets the sector’s hygiene requirements. Tinning prevents the steel from oxidising, and therefore makes it particularly resistant to acids (such as in the case of canned fruit or tomatoes).

Tinplate is also appreciated for its versatility for printing or gluing. Finally, it is easy to weld and can be shaped and cut with ease.

From a recycling perspective, tin could be a detrimental element in the melting processes carried out by steelworks, and it would therefore be desirable for the tin to be separated from the ferrous portion by means of a de-tinning process. As well as recovering the tin, this process also allows a higher quality scrap iron to be obtained as an associated benefit.

However, this process involves significantly higher costs than the traditional shredding system, which is why in the vast majority of cases it is delivered directly to steelworks, which melt it down together with the other iron scrap. Nevertheless, this does not undermine the recycling process, because compared to the total scrap collected, tinplate makes up a very small percentage of the total material, and this allows steelworks to control the process without significantly reducing the quality of the resulting steel.


Chrome plate

Chrome plate is a lower-cost alternative to tinplate, however it has lower acid resistance and limited scope for welding. The protective layer is thinner, but more compact. It is mainly used for lids, bottoms and crown caps, since they do not require welding.


Stainless steel

Stainless steel used for the production of packaging is an alloy that contains at least 11% chromium, which provides excellent chemical inertness and high corrosion resistance. This type of packaging also has high mechanical strength and is highly workable.

There are three different types – austenitic, ferritic and martensitic – which differ in their final sheet characteristics.

In the packaging sector, steel is used in the production of barrels, such as for beer. Steel drums are used for storing and transporting liquids such as oil or chemicals such as paint and lubricants. Another use of steel in the transport sector is for the production of strapping.

In industry, due to its resistance to mechanical stress and pressure, steel is used to move machine parts or tools.


Types of steel packaging

According to RICREA – National Consortium for the Recycling and Recovery of Steel Packaging, there are six main categories of steel structures, each with its own specific properties and applications:


Open top

The expression “open top” refers to packaging that has an opening in its top, such as metal cans or tins. Made of tin or chrome plate, this type of packaging is widely used for packaging food products, including meat, fish, fruit in syrup and canned vegetables, coffee and pet food.

These packages can be made in three pieces, with a main body, a bottom and a lid, or in two pieces, with the main body deep-drawn and a lid applied. In both cases, with the proliferation of easy-open systems, lids can be easily removed, including when they are made of other materials (such as aluminium).

Although these solutions have continued to be used for almost two centuries, research and development efforts in the field have resulted in constant improvement in their performance.


General line

In technical jargon, packaging referred to as “general line” is typically made of tinplate. The packaging is available in different shapes, such as cylinders and rectangles, and offers great versatility according to specific requirements. This type of packaging is mainly used by the chemical and food industries.

Due to its strength and durability, which make it suitable for containing chemicals and corrosive products, the packaging is used to package varnishes, inks, paints, enamels, mastics and lubricants. In the food industry, it is valued for its oxygen, moisture and light barrier properties, which help preserve the freshness and quality of products.

The capacity of these containers can vary, offering packaging options suitable for even larger contents.



Closures are essential components of packaging and are designed to ensure the hygiene, safety and integrity of the contained product.

There are several categories of steel closures on the market: crown caps, lug caps, lids, seals and cages.

Crown caps are commonly used for glass bottles and are used in the beverage industry, for example, to package beer, carbonated soft drinks and water. They provide an airtight closure that prevents leakage of liquids or gases.

Lug caps are similar to crown caps and are also used for glass bottles, but their main use is for sealing jars: they fit over the top of the container and have an internal thread to facilitate opening and allow resealing, thus preserving the freshness of the product and preventing air or contamination from entering.

Lids are used for containers of various shapes, such as steel cans and buckets; they can be equipped with easy-open systems, such as pull-rings or pull-tabs.

Seals, such as labels and tapes, are applied to joints and closures to ensure the integrity of the container as well as the contents; they can indicate whether the packaging has been tampered with, providing a guarantee of authenticity and security.

Cages are used to close steel drums in the chemical industry and in the transport of liquids or bulk materials; they are often fitted with handles or lifting rings, and provide secure closure during the handling of goods.


Aerosol cans

Aerosol cans are containers used for packaging gaseous suspensions and liquid solutions. As propellants, propane and butane are increasingly being used, which not only have a lower environmental impact but are also easier to use.

They are usually made of tinplate and require a pressure closure with a valve to dispense the product; they are produced by mechanical forming processes, which improve their resistance to internal pressure.

These containers are widely used in various sectors, including household care products, cosmetics, food, insecticides, pharmaceuticals and paints.

Aerosol cans allow for easy disposal, following the same recycling process as other steel packaging, although they do require some special care: at the post-consumption stage, consumers must correctly remove the dispenser cap (usually made of plastic) and dispose of it through the separate collection system; then, at the post-processing stage, recycling operators must be attentive to possible residues of compressed gas, which can cause explosions, particularly during shredding operations to obtain scrap iron.



Drums and barrels are containers made of sheet steel, with a storage capacity of up to 250 litres. These containers are mainly used in the chemical and oil sectors, but are also used in the food industry with the addition of specific surface treatments.

In this case they are usually produced in the shape of a truncated cone to facilitate stacking and can have different closure methods depending on whether the contained product is liquid or solid. Usually, they are made of low-alloy cold-rolled steel and closed with longitudinal welds; inside, they are coated with protective synthetic lacquers.

Before being recycled at the end of their life cycle, steel drums can be reused several times, after being suitably treated. There are also commercially available solutions involving the addition of a flexible multilayer inner bag to contain the product; this bag, which can be easily removed and disposed of separately, makes the drums easier to recover and regenerate, as it prevents them from coming into direct contact with the contents and becoming dirty.


Strapping and wires

Strapping is thin metal tape in rolls, used as reinforcement for crates and boxes and for securing heavy loads, such as pipes, timber and handling products; it are also used for tamper-proofing. Wires are used as an alternative to strapping, often for the same purposes.



Recycling of steel packaging

General overview

As highlighted, when deciding on a packaging solution, consideration should not only be given to the packaging’s communicative and usage functions; there should also be a thorough awareness of the entire life cycle of the content, just like its container. In the design process, it is essential to provide not only effective protection of the content, consumer safety and suitable brand promotion; it is also important to take account of the environmental impacts and, more generally, the sustainability of the packaging, in line with current regulations and from a circularity perspective.

A systemic approach to packaging design is therefore required, meaning that right from its conception, there is consideration for its future impacts on the waste collection, sorting and recycling system at the end of its life cycle. In other words, every designer should understand what happens when a packaging reaches the end of its useful life and how it should be managed so that it is properly recycled. This way, it will be possible to develop targeted design solutions to optimise waste management, ensuring the efficiency and sustainability of recycling processes.

The description of the recycling chain provides a comprehensive overview of the stages that packaging goes through after its disposal as waste by consumers, up to its transformation into secondary raw materials and its reintroduction into production processes. Detailed knowledge of these stages allows existing packaging to be rethought and new packaging to be developed with a focus on circularity and sustainable innovation.

This document specifically focuses on the steel packaging chain for domestic and industrial use.



The first phase of the recycling process is the collection of ferrous materials, which can be divided into two streams: the integrated municipal waste management stream, and the industrial packaging stream.

The municipal stream includes:

  • single-material separate collection (only metal packaging)
  • multi-material separate collection, which is divided into light multi-material (when metals and plastics are collected together) and heavy multi-material (metals, glass)
  • unseparated collection, where the ferrous portion can be recovered in the mechanical biological treatment process of residual waste, or from the treatment of bottom ash in waste-to-energy plants, since combustion is a process that does not preclude the material’s recyclability.

The most widely used system in Italy is multi-material separate collection, which involves subsequent separation of the collected waste into specific materials. Here, the magnetic properties of steel facilitate its separation from the others, ensuring good quality of the final recycled material produced.

In order to ensure high-quality separate collection of municipal waste, it is essential to raise awareness among citizens so that they dispose of packaging correctly, contributing to effective recycling. This initial phase can be decisive for the smooth running of the process as well as its final result. For some time now, education campaigns have been underway by municipalities, associations and other institutions to provide information to citizens on good practices associated with separate collection.

With regard to industrial packaging, this is generally collected as a single-material waste, but this is followed by a flow which is divided into:

  • regeneration of reusable industrial packaging, such as drums and tanks
  • recycling of hazardous, non-reusable industrial packaging
  • recycling of non-hazardous, non-reusable industrial packaging
  • recycling of strapping and wire (similar to the previous category).



Multi-material collection requires adequate separation of waste in order to make it suitable for the treatment processes, which it must undergo in order to be recovered.

The process is commonly carried out at special sorting plants. The material is initially accumulated in an area where a group of operators proceed with an initial manual separation on the ground, in order to eliminate larger objects; any bags are also torn and the waste heap is compacted.

After this preliminary separation, the different materials are further separated according to progressive steps, passing through various stations.

These steps typically include a facility for magnetic separation using an iron remover: a magnet physically separates the ferrous scrap from the non-ferrous scrap, which is placed onto different conveyor belts.

To separate some metallic components from non-metallic ones, an eddy current separator is also used, which exploits the electrical conduction properties of metals to isolate them from other materials.

There are sometimes stations where manual intervention by workers is again required to separate particular types of waste, such as large steels, plastics or waste considered critical, such as unopened packaging and non-recyclable materials. This operation plays a highly sensitive role, as it allows the entire process to be optimised.

At the end of the process, the sorted waste is then stored in different areas by means of conveyor belts, with each area designated for a specific material: steel, aluminium, plastic, glass and organic waste.


After the separation phase, the packaging scrap must be processed before it can be recycled in steelworks and foundries; the processing involved in this phase makes it possible both to reduce the overall volume of scrap and to improve its quality.

Within the treatment process, there are two possible procedures which are part of the overall process: shredding on the one hand, and screening and pressing on the other, which have their initial and final stages in common. In both cases, the scrap is delivered to the treatment plants, which, by means of specific technical equipment, assess the weight, the quality of the material received and the presence of any non-conforming parts, which are also detected using radiometric portals that identify any radioactive elements.

At the start of the treatment process, which is semi-automated, the incoming material is fed into a hopper, and it is then passed along conveyor belts through the various stations that progressively refine the quality of the material. If there are inhomogeneities or elements within the material flow that are not suitable for this process, such as non-recyclable elements or particularly long profiles, there is always human intervention, similar to the separation phase.

Then, as previously mentioned, two alternative procedures can be followed depending on the treatment facility.

The first option is shredding, where the previously sorted scrap is shredded using a mill to obtain small-sized flakes (proler) which can enter the next stages of the treatment process. During this operation, impurities such as organic elements and non-ferrous inclusions are also removed.

Following the shredding procedures, the scrap undergoes two additional treatments in the final stage of the process: de-ironing and air separation. The first separates the iron parts from the material stream, using their magnetic properties, similar to the separation phase. Material obtained in this way may, however, contain non-metallic impurities, such as paper or plastic, which may become stuck or attached. To remove these impurities, the material undergoes air separation, which uses air jets to remove the lighter elements.

As an alternative to shredding, the scrap is passed through a rotary screen, consisting of a cylindrical drum mounted on an inclined axis that rotates on itself. Through perforations made for this purpose, small pieces of scrap (e.g. caps and non-metallic elements) are filtered out and separated from the main flow; larger pieces of scrap remain on the surface and are pushed towards the end point of the drum. Unlike the first procedure, where the volume of scrap is reduced directly by the shredding, there is also a final pressing stage downstream of the screening, which compresses the materials to reduce their size.

Under certain circumstances, tinplate scrap may also undergo a de-tinning process, which allows the tin to be separated. Tin has the potential to harm the steel melting processes, but controlled quantities are considered acceptable by steelworks that dose the amount of tinplate within the melt. Prior to tin separation, the material must be purified to remove foreign elements and to avoid pollution of the alkaline baths used in the process. As well as recovering the tin, this process also produces higher quality scrap iron.

Finally, the processed material is stored in various depots. It can be divided into scrap ready to be sent to steelworks; scrap with a significant percentage of other materials, which undergoes a further cycle; and scrap consisting mainly of residual plastic and organic waste, which is sent for disposal.

A minimum quantity of non-metallic waste remains in the final material, which must be less than 2% according to Council Regulation (EU) 333/2011 of 31 March. This mainly consists of plastic, paper and other elements that become stuck between the shredded pieces. However, this quantity does not create problems when the material is melted in steelworks and foundries.

An important aspect to take into account is that ferrous materials lose their “waste” status once they have undergone specific treatment processes, and become classified as secondary raw materials. For a precise definition of these conditions, please refer to the relevant legislation, specifically Regulation (EU) 33/2011.



Melting is the final stage of the overall process described so far. This is the part where the actual recycling of steel takes place, and the ferrous scrap is transformed into secondary raw material within a steel plant.

The scrap selected for melting is weighed and, if necessary, other alloying elements are added, for example to correct the carbon content, or add other metals to change the composition of the secondary raw material that will be obtained.

Next, the material is loaded and fed into the electric furnace for melting, which takes place through a continuous process in several steps.

This stage is the most energy-consuming of the entire process; the electric furnace is brought to a temperature of approximately 1,500–1,600°C, which is required to melt the steel. Large graphite conductors are activated to generate the heat required to keep the temperature stable. Each melting cycle lasts about five minutes, during which approximately 50 tonnes of material are melted.

Before the molten steel is extracted, the production slag is removed, which has a lower density than the steel and rises to the surface; specific polymers are added to the casting material to obtain the appropriate density to separate it from the molten steel. The slag is then separated and deposited in cooling baskets, to be subsequently treated and transformed into inert material, often used in construction as an alternative to gravel.

After the slag has been removed, the molten steel then undergoes further processing steps to improve its mechanical properties through the addition of other elements; part of the molten material is kept inside the furnace to optimise the next casting. This is followed by extrusion and cooling by spraying water on the final semi-finished products, which generally take the form of billets, mainly used in the construction industry.

Melting requires large quantities of water to cool the output material and treat by-products such as oxides; in order to reduce water consumption, the water is returned to the production cycle after it has been suitably processed.

In addition to requiring large quantities of water, melting is also an extremely energy-intensive process; it therefore has significant environmental impacts in terms of resource consumption and emissions. However, over the years, actions have been taken to reduce or compensate for these impacts, for example by adopting filters to purify the air and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or by using the heat generated from melting to heat the offices linked to the plants and provide thermal energy to neighbouring municipalities.


Treatment of hazardous packaging

The collection and treatment of packaging classified as hazardous follow a dedicated chain that uses specific procedures to reclaim it, eliminating harmful agents. The term “hazardous” refers to a wide range of substances that present a significant danger both to human safety and to the environment, including explosive, flammable, irritant, corrosive, toxic or carcinogenic substances.

Reclamation ensures a high quality of output material (proler), consisting of approximately 99% steel scrap; this is assured if the input scrap is almost entirely ferrous.

The packaging delivered to the specialised facilities may contain a residual percentage of hazardous waste. In order to ensure maximum efficiency and safety, the scrap material undergoes detailed analysis upon entry, in order to detect unopened closed packaging, or radioactive material. If detected, they are appropriately treated before being stored.

Two different procedures can be employed: friction cleaning and solvent cleaning.

Friction cleaning is similar to the shredding process seen above, but uses suitably modified equipment to enable the hazardous substance to be separated from the scrap by using strong friction. Given the intrinsic hazardousness of the substances involved, careful control and appropriate reduction of the operating temperature during frictional cleaning is a crucial aspect in order to prevent open flames and explosions from occurring. In addition, any gases and fine dust generated during the process are extracted.

In contrast, solvent cleaning utilises semi-automated systems, which use water and solvent to remove harmful substances from the packaging. For the most critical cases, virgin solvent is preferred, while for other cases, it is possible to use solvent which has already been used for other cleanings, which will be mixed with 30% virgin component; this composition is also adjusted over time so that the product is treated as safely as possible. Used solvent that can no longer be reused is recovered and regenerated within the plant itself.


Regeneration of industrial packaging

Some packaging for industrial use, such as drums and metal cage containers, can be regenerated. This means they undergo a process that restores them to their original condition, even when they have contained harmful or hazardous substances. This avoids the need to melt material to make new containers, which saves energy and reduces climate-changing emissions.

It is estimated that regeneration can allow a drum to be reused seven to ten times over its lifetime, providing significant savings in resources even after the second reuse.


Regeneration of drums

The drum regeneration process is as follows.

The initial phase involves an inspection of the packaging. Some containers, although seemingly empty, may have residues inside that must be pre-treated to prevent them from causing possible reactions with solvents during washing. Drums from the same company are checked in batches, so that groups of containers can be specifically treated.

If the drum has been in contact with hazardous substances, such as oils, resins and paints, it must be pre-washed with water and soda or a solvent. The cleaning process also varies depending on the closure. For example, if the drum has a partial opening with a cap, it indicates that it has contained liquids such as oils, paints, thinners or lubricants. Meanwhile, if it has a partial opening with a movable cap, it means it has contained powders or pastes. The waste water produced in this phase is cleaned, together with the exhaust air aspirated from the washing cabins, and the residues remaining in the drum are aspirated and taken to incineration.

After cleaning, the shape of the drum is restored by reconditioning the edges and any dents; this is a highly automated step.

Each drum is then dried, calibrated and inspected to check whether the regeneration operation has achieved the desired results. Constant improvement of the regeneration process is bringing about a reduction in the number of drums discarded at this stage.

As the final phase of regeneration, the drum’s exterior is brushed to remove labels and other adhesives and a paint coat is applied to even out the surface of the container.

For drums that have a polyethylene layer inside for the containment of specific hazardous substances, once the plastic component has been removed, the steel structure is recovered.

The whole process is designed to minimise waste. The solvents and water used during the process are periodically purified and reused, thus contributing to the sustainable management of the industrial process.

Drums discarded for regeneration or at the end of their useful life are sent for material recovery by implementing a volumetric reduction to facilitate their transport to recycling plants. They then become ferrous scrap which will be melted down.


Regeneration of tanks

The regeneration process for metal cage tanks is similar to the one for drums.

In order to detect any defects both in both the metal cage and the plastic inner tank, a preliminary inspection is carried out to determine which containers will be selected for cleaning.

If the plastic inner tank can no longer be reused due to penetration of hazardous material or non-recoverable dents, it is replaced with a new container; similarly for the metal cages, their edges are restored and dents repaired where possible.

Like the drums, the tanks are cleaned with solvents whose composition is based on the type of product that the tank previously contained. The containers are then vacuum or air dried.

The parts that cannot be regenerated are recycled, and for this they are cut and crushed to the required size. This process also includes a washing phase to remove all substances in contact with the material.



Design guidelines for facilitating the recycling of steel packaging

General principles

As underlined by CONAI, facilitating recycling activities is one of the main prevention levers for reducing the impacts of packaging. Through recycling, waste generated by a production process can become a valuable resource for the same process or other processes, offering clear environmental advantages as well as resulting in an optimised use of resources with consequent economic benefits.

In this context, the designer plays an essential role, for example in choices that result in the use of just one material, or easier separation of the different components, such as labels, closures and dispensers. With careful and conscious design interventions, it becomes possible to make packaging production increasingly aligned with circular economy models.

The following paragraphs present some guidelines for developing steel packaging with the focus on prevention and on facilitating recycling activities, serving as a tool both for analysing and evaluating existing packaging and, above all, for designing new packaging. The guidance presented in this document is intended to support designers and companies in developing containers, whether intended for end consumers or industrial operators, that are designed not only according to their contents, production, transport, sale and consumption contexts, but also take into account what will happen post-consumption when they become waste and must be disposed of.

Planning for what will happen in the disposal phase means concretely understanding what activities are involved in the recycling chain, what technologies are currently available and what industrial processes are used in the plants operating in Italy, so that the packaging placed on the market is compatible with the system as a whole.

In the design phase, consideration must therefore be given to the aforementioned aspects, balancing them with a careful assessment of the characteristics of the product that the packaging will contain and the needs expressed by the system of stakeholders, as well as the stages of the supply chain which it will be a part of. The packaging must comply with the protection and storage requirements of the contents, as well as safety for the consumer, conformity to regulations and compatibility with the production and logistics system. This must then be accompanied by special attention to recyclability, simplification of complex shapes, reduction of special treatments that are not strictly necessary, and so on, so that recycling can be facilitated. All of this must be done without compromising the protection of the product and the functioning of processes, while also avoiding waste and consequent unnecessary consumption of resources.

Closely related to waste reduction is, for example, the issue of portioning. This practice, which is particularly relevant for food packaging, takes into account social changes and the gradual decline in the number of household members. Packages of smaller portions avoid food compared to larger formats, which are sometimes difficult to consume entirely within the expiry date, especially for people living alone. Facilitating recycling therefore does not mean rejecting certain types of design solutions outright, but rather calibrating a complex system of factors inherent to the relationship between content, container and associated processes. By maintaining a balance between the functional requirements of packaging and environmental considerations, it is possible to produce packaging that meets safety requirements, preserves the environment and promotes the circular economy.

The recommendations are based on observing the behaviour of the packaging and all its components along the entire route, from separate collection to production of the secondary raw material. Considering the sorting and recycling processes common to different packaging categories, the following aspects were examined: emptying and removal of residues, structural dimensions and components, surface treatments, environmental information and end-user awareness.

Although it is not possible to establish absolute guidelines and indicate rules valid for all situations that may occur in the sector, this document aims to present general recommendations and advice to assist the search for more easily recyclable packaging solutions. Given the variety of types of steel packaging, each specific situation requires a targeted assessment, taking into account the regulatory, functional, communication and environmental requirements of each package.


Structural aspects

At the design level, the structure of the packaging plays a fundamental role in terms of functionality, both in terms of content protection and ergonomics of use, facilitating the end user’s handling and enjoyment of the product.

However, when defining the structural aspects of packaging, it is important to consider how the choice of a certain format or thickness can significantly affect not only the performance but also the environmental impact (consumption of resources and emissions) of the packaging, during production (use of raw materials), during transport (due to the weight and space required for storage) and in end-of-life management.

While assuring that the performance and functional requirements of the packaging are always met, it is then necessary to make design choices that reduce impacts as much as possible, for example by reducing the volumes and thicknesses of the packaging’s structure. On this matter, in order to reduce the amount of material while retaining the packaging’s mechanical resistance (for example to ensure adequate stackability with consequent benefits in terms of logistics), the shape of the packaging can be altered by modifying the geometry of the profile (e.g. by adding ribs), thereby strengthening the overall structure.

Another aspect to consider is that shapes with varying cross-sections, especially with extremely pronounced profiles, can become entangled with other waste when it is disposed of; for this reason, it is better to opt for regular shapes, as the variation in cross-section can affect the recycling process.

Finally, it is advisable, whenever possible, to adopt solutions that assist users in handling steel packaging: in addition to making it easier to access and consume the product, recycling operations can be facilitated by designing the packaging so that in the post-consumption phase it is simple to separate the components as well as compact and reduce the packaging’s volume.


In summary, with performance being equal, it is preferable to: 

  • reduce packaging thicknesses and volumes as much as possible while still ensuring safety and performance, for example mechanical resistance when stacking;
  • simplify the shape of the packaging and prioritise shapes with section variations that are not too pronounced;
  • make it easier for users to safely handle the packaging, so it can be compacted and reduced in volume prior to disposal in separate collection.



In the overall assessment of the packaging structure, another aspect to consider in a design aimed at facilitating recycling activities is the relationship between the main body of the packaging and its accessory components. It is common to encounter steel packaging with secondary components of different materials or, conversely, packaging of other materials containing steel parts.

Mixing several materials can compromise recycling, especially when the components are difficult to separate. For instance, non-removable rigid plastic components, as in the case of bucket handles, could be a potential obstacle to recycling, so they should be avoided as far as possible or at least mitigated by making them easily removable.

In order to minimise inconveniences and optimise the recycling process, it is recommended to reduce the number of components and adopt single-material solutions whenever possible; however, in situations where this is not possible, the components should be designed so they can be easily separated by end-users, so they can be correctly disposed of in separate collection. In this regard, communication plays a key role in guiding consumers to recognise the various materials and dispose of them correctly, thereby contributing to efficient recycling.

If made of materials other than steel, components (caps and closures, dispensers, valves or labels) should be designed with separability in mind, thinking about their future role in the packaging’s life cycle – not only in the initial stages until the product is consumed, but also in the subsequent stages – so they can be properly disposed of.

For components which are also made of steel, however, the components should not be separable. In this case, they should be designed to remain fixed to the main body of the packaging (see, for example, open-top packaging solutions where the tabs remain attached to the rest of the structure). This because during the recycling process, small-volume elements risk being dispersed and not recovered, even if treatment facilities are equipped with tools that detect and isolate small pieces of scrap.


Focus: Labels

Another consideration should be made for labels, which often remain attached to the main body of the packaging due to the high number of adhesives used. Although cellulosic elements are not problematic for recycling purposes, it is recommended to reduce the number of glue points to make the labels easier to remove, possibly facilitated by the addition of perforations to allow them to be torn off more quickly. In addition, it may be useful to add prompts on the packaging reminding the consumer to remove the label and dispose of it in the correct recycling category.


In summary, with performance being equal, it is preferable to: 

  • reduce the number of accessory components and adopt single-material solutions;
  • avoid or at least minimise the use of rigid plastic components;
  • make it easy to completely separate components made of materials other than steel;
  • prevent the dispersal of small steel components (e.g. tabs and disposable lids) by ensuring that they remain attached to the packaging and do not separate;
  • for steel closure systems applied to packaging made of other materials (e.g. cans and glass bottles), optimise the shape and reduce the amount of material used to minimise possible losses if these elements are not recycled;
  • make labels easy to remove by reducing glue points and adding perforations or other systems for easier tearing;
  • inform and guide consumers about correctly separating (or not separating) the accessory components and how to dispose of them in separate collection.


Residues and emptying

Designing packaging from the perspective of reducing environmental impact and, even more so, in terms of making it easier to recycle, requires an overall assessment of the packaging structure, not only in terms of the absolute quantity of material used, thickness or number of components, but also in relation to the product it contains and the relationship between the content and the container. As already seen, this relationship concerns protection and preservation of the product, physical/chemical compatibility with the product, and the appropriate volume and quantity of packaging materials compared to the quantity of content, for example to avoid “over-packaging”.

However, the content-container relationship also concerns another factor, namely the ease with which end users can empty the packaging. By making it easy to empty, this prevents residues from being left inside the packaging which, as well as being a waste of the product, can in some cases compromise optimal recycling. In this respect, it is important to note that Directive 94/62/EC and standard UNI EN 13430:2005 specifically highlight the importance of packaging being completely emptied, in order to minimise any substances being released or residues remaining during the recycling process – not only in the case of packaging identified as hazardous, but also for packaging for domestic use.

In general, residues are not a significant hindrance to the recycling of steel packaging: if the packaging contains minimal quantities of product at the time of disposal, these residues are removed during the waste sorting and pre-treatment stages and then completely dissolved when the material is actually recycled. However, in order to optimise the recycling process as much as possible and improve the result, it is nevertheless recommended to adopt specific measures during the design phase to make it easy to completely empty the packaging, especially when the contents are denser and more difficult to remove.

Particular attention should also be paid to packaging that is disposed of unopened and full, such as in the case of expired foodstuffs. By effectively communicating with the end user, it is possible to raise awareness and encourage complete emptying of the packaging before it is disposed of in separate collection. Furthermore, targeted design choices can facilitate the removal of contents from the packaging, such as a wider openings and shapes that do not result in accumulation points where the product is more difficult to remove.


Focus: Aerosol cans

As far as completely emptying the canisters is concerned, it is crucially important for there to be no residue remaining inside the spray cans, as safety problems can arise during the recycling process due to potential fires and explosions. For these reasons, although spray cans are actually easy to recycle in terms of material, they still require specific precautions depending on the type of propellant they contain.

Commonly used propellants can be of two types: hydrocarbon-based, such as propane, or non-hydrocarbon-based, such as carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide. It is the hydrocarbon-based propellants that can cause safety problems, for example, during the compression of materials in sorting and recovery facilities, when rubbing the material can generate sparks and cause combustion due to the presence of the propellant.

It is therefore essential to inform end users that it is important to completely empty the cans before disposing of them for separate collection, either by using the dispenser in the packaging or by incorporating solutions in the design phase that make it easy to vent the packaging at the end of its life.

In addition to the problem of residues, another point of attention for the recycling of aerosol cans is the presence of plastic components. Here again, effective communication to end users about correctly separating the components before disposal in separate collection is essential in order to facilitate the recycling process.


In summary, with performance being equal, it is preferable to:

  • opt for structures that make it easy to completely empty the packaging, adopting specific solutions according to the type of content (liquid, viscous, solid, powder, gaseous), for example by providing wide openings and shapes that do not have areas where the product accumulates without being able to be removed;
  • inform users of the importance of completely emptying the packaging of any residual contents before disposing of it in separate collection. Specifically, packages that are still unopened and full should be taken to municipal collection centres.

Surface treatments

Surface treatments are applications that aim to improve the functional characteristics or aesthetic qualities of steel packaging. There are many advantages to these treatments: from a functional point of view, they can make the packaging suitable for containing particularly aggressive chemicals; they can allow the packaging to meet specific health and hygiene requirements and suitable for contact with certain foodstuffs; or they can help strengthen the material’s barrier properties to preserve and extend the shelf-life of products.

However, given the impact that certain applications may have on recycling, it is always advisable to minimise these treatments, especially when they are not strictly necessary. On the other hand, when surface treatments cannot be avoided because they give the packaging essential performance, it is important to take precautions so that recycling is not hindered.


Focus: Varnishing

For lacquers and paints, it is recommended to use low-impact coating processes (such as UV/LED coating) whenever possible. It is also preferable to use water-based lacquers and paints with reduced volatile organic compound (VOC) content, which do not cause significant impacts during recycling.


In summary, with performance being equal, it is preferable to: 

  • use surface treatments only if strictly necessary to provide a property that cannot be achieved by other means;
  • give preference to low-impact varnishing processes;
  • whenever possible, use water-based lacquers and paints with low VOC content.


Communication to consumers

To ensure a quality recycling result, in addition to adopting measures at the design stage to make the packaging more easily recyclable, it is essential to involve end users so they are made aware of how to correctly separate steel packaging. In the collection phase, while the industrial sector generates waste which is homogeneous in terms of quality, the municipal flow sees the accumulation of various types of waste, so these must be properly sorted upstream.

End users therefore need to be aware of good practices for correctly disposing of the containers that they encounter. This awareness is essential to guarantee optimum recycling processes, and those involved in designing the packaging, as well as working on it from a utilitarian point of view, should also consider it as a “means of communication” that can guide people’s behaviour.

This contribution is even more important when the designer can successfully lead users to perform virtuous actions in an almost automatic way, without the need for targeted education or with a minimal amount of prior information. This is why, from the earliest stages of the design process, it is important to define the most suitable communication methods to ensure that the packaging is disposed of in separate collection in the correct way.  Citizens must be able to distinguish what is packaging from what is not, and know to do with the different types of waste.

On 11 September 2020, Legislative Decree 116 of 3 September 2020 was published in the Official Journal, which transposes EU Directive 2018/851 on waste, and Directive (EU) 2018/852 on packaging and packaging waste. The decree introduced mandatory environmental labelling for all packaging placed released for consumption in Italy as of 1 January 2023. The text of the law explicitly states that all packaging (B2B and B2C) must carry material identifications in accordance with Decision 129/97/EC. Packaging destined for end consumers must also include information about how to properly dispose of it. CONAI suggests clearly indicating the prevailing material family of the packaging, which in the case of steel and aluminium can also be identified as “metal”, since they are collected together and the bins are generally labelled this way by the managers of household separate collections.

In general, information on environmental labelling and how to dispose of packaging/waste in the separate collection must be able to answer three main questions:

  • what is it? – can the packaging can be categorised as a specific type of material? (Alphanumeric code from Decision 129/97/EC and material family)
  • where should it be disposed of? – should it be disposed of separately, and in which bin? (Information about collection)
  • how should it be treated? – what should be done to the waste before it is disposed of in separate collection? (Guidance for consumers to assist them in enabling quality separate collection)

Using simple messages on the label and immediately comprehensible forms of communication helps packaging to be correctly sorted in the separate collection. For example, making it easier to recognise materials visually not only with mandatory identification codes (such as “FE 40” for steel packaging) but also with additional voluntary information, has proven to be particularly effective at the separate collection stage. In addition, incorporating mandatory environmental labelling, as set out in Ministerial Decree 360 of 28 September 2022, with consumer information on how to correctly dispose of packaging, has definitely helped to facilitate the recycling process. To this end, CONAI has made available the document entitled “Guidelines for voluntary environmental labelling of packaging”, for firms interested in voluntarily affixing additional environmental declarations or labels on packaging.

With regard to other messages that are recommended to be added on packaging, as seen above, instructions can be provided on separating the components, making it easier, for example, to recognise and dismantle parts made from different materials (e.g. plastic caps or dispensers), or to compact and reduce the volume of packaging.

Finally, it is important for hazardous packaging to be easily identifiable and for it to be clear how it should be handled: it must be communicated on the label that the content may pose a risk during the recycling stages, so the packaging must be emptied before disposal and the residue must be properly removed, to minimise residual hazardous substances as far as possible.


In summary, it is recommended to:

  • encourage users to think about what will happen to the packaging after it is disposed of, and the role they play in ensuring it is recycled correctly;
  • convey messages that guide users to adopt good practices during use and disposal;
  • provide users with useful and clear information about the materials that the packaging is made from, in compliance with the reference legislation;
  • provide specific information about how to dispose of the packaging, including separating its components, emptying it, and what actions to take with hazardous packaging.


Checklists for designers and firms

> Informational checklist
> Evaluational checklist




Packaging is defined as active when it is designed to interact with its contents in one or more ways, often to improve the performance of the container and compensate for a deficiency. The active component may be part of the packaging material or an insert or component within the package. For example, a can made of tinplate has a sacrificial layer of tin that protects food from the accumulation of catalytically active iron salts.

SOURCE: Kit L. Yam. (2009). Encyclopedia of Packaging Technology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.



A thermochemical process that occurs within a specific time frame and under specific environmental conditions. During biodegradation, materials/products are converted into biomass, water and carbon dioxide. 

SOURCE: Greene, J.P. (2014). Sustainable Plastics: Environmental Assessments of Biobased, Biodegradable and Recycled Plastics (1st Ed). John Wiley & Sons.



A restorative and regenerative industrial economy that aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest level of usefulness and value, distinguishing technical cycles from biological ones. 

SOURCE: Ellen MacArthur Foundation.



A residue from the distillation of hard coal. It is obtained by heating coal in the absence of air. It can be a by-product of distillation gas or the main product when used in blast furnaces and foundries (metallurgical coke), with different starting coals in each case (long-flame fat and short-flame fat, respectively). The process of converting hard coal into coke takes place in distillation retorts – high, deep but narrow chambers which the coal is loaded into. In contact with the hot walls of the distillation retort, after the occluded gases are eliminated and the water evaporates, a proportion of the volatile substances are eliminated and a semi-fused plastic mass is formed. At temperatures above 450°C, this consolidates to produce semi-coke. At even higher temperatures of 900–1100°C, more of the volatile substances are eliminated, and the residual mass forms coke proper. The composition of the resulting gas continues to change as it is heated up. At first, it is rich in superior hydrocarbons (aliphatic and aromatic), as well as methane, and aliquots of CO and CO2 originating from the reaction between water vapour (from the dehydration of the charge) and hot coal. Subsequently, there is a progressive increase in hydrogen content (in the final phase it reaches about 80%), with this gas originating from the thermal decomposition of the organic substances present. Above 800°C, methane also reacts to produce hydrogen and carbon, which cements the coke. The higher the temperature of the distillation, the more compact the resulting coke will be. Metallurgical coke is more compact, harder and more resistant to crushing. The quantity (max 9%) and chemical nature of the ash that it produces during complete combustion is of great importance in its use in blast furnaces.

SOURCE: Treccani Encyclopaedia.




The degree of a metallic substance or material’s resistance to corrosion, i.e. to decay upon contact with chemical reagents (chemical corrosion or in a dry environment) or as a result of electrochemical phenomena (electrochemical corrosion or in a wet environment).

SOURCE: Bucchetti, V., Ciravegna, E. (2009). Le parole del packaging: Glossario Ragionato per il sistema-imballaggio (“The Words of Packaging: a Reasoned Glossary for the Packaging System”). Dativo.



According to Article 218, Paragraph 1, Letter N of Legislative Decree 152/06, energy recovery of packaging waste occurs when combustible packaging waste is used to produce energy through the waste-to-energy process (with or without other types of waste) by heat recovery. 

SOURCE: CONAI (2020). Guide to membership and to the application of the Environmental Contribution (Volume 1).



The degree of a material’s plastic deformability. It is defined as the resistance to permanent deformation. Hardness tests determine the resistance that a material exhibits to being penetrated by another (penetrator). There are several scales for measuring hardness, of which the most commonly used are Brinell, Vickers, Rockwell and Mohs.

SOURCE: Bucchetti, V., Ciravegna, E. (2009). Le parole del packaging: Glossario Ragionato per il sistema-imballaggio (“The Words of Packaging: a Reasoned Glossary for the Packaging System”). Dativo.



In chemistry, this is the generic name for all organic compounds consisting solely of carbon and hydrogen. They occur as gaseous, liquid, solid, generally colourless, water-insoluble substances that are used as solvents, fuels and raw materials to produce numerous industrial products (including synthetic rubbers, plastics, pharmaceuticals and fertilisers).

SOURCE: Treccani Encyclopaedia.



Functional packaging designed to monitor the state of preservation of the food that it contains, by releasing/absorbing substances.

SOURCE: Bucchetti, V., Ciravegna, E. (2009). Le parole del packaging: Glossario Ragionato per il sistema-imballaggio (“The Words of Packaging: a Reasoned Glossary for the Packaging System”). Dativo.



A structure made of flexible or easily bendable material, whose shape can change after it is filled and sealed. 

SOURCE: Bucchetti, V., Ciravegna, E. (2009). Le parole del packaging: Glossario Ragionato per il sistema-imballaggio (“The Words of Packaging: a Reasoned Glossary for the Packaging System”). Dativo.



A material that does not react or reacts very little with other materials or substances.

SOURCE: Callister W., Rethwisch D,. (2019). Materials Science and Engineering. Edises.



A mechanical process that utilises opposing cylinders, which rotate on themselves to give the material the desired shape and thickness. ‘Lamination’ also refers to an operation that covers a printed sheet with a thin protective layer of plastic or metallic material called laminate.  

SOURCE: Bucchetti, V., Ciravegna, E. (2009). Le parole del packaging: Glossario Ragionato per il sistema-imballaggio (“The Words of Packaging: a Reasoned Glossary for the Packaging System”). Dativo.



Plants that perform mechanical treatment of residual urban waste (RUR), possibly combined with biological treatment of bio-drying or bio-stabilisation. 

SOURCE: Biganzoli L., Grosso M., (2015). Il ruolo del Trattamento Meccanico Biologico nel panorama di gestione dei rifiuti solidi urbani in Italia (“The role of Mechanical Biological Treatment within municipal solid waste management in Italy”). MatER Study Center.



The ability of a material to resist the action of external forces that can deform or break it.

SOURCE: Smith, W., Hashemi J. (2016). Science and Technology of Materials McGraw-Hill.



A mixture of two or more elements, of which at least one is a metal, and whose resulting material has different metallic properties from those of its components.

SOURCE: Spigarelli S. (2012). Metallurgia meccanica (“Mechanical metallurgy”). Esculapio.



A device that uses a driving force to apply pressure or friction to a material, causing it to break.

SOURCE: Smith, W., Hashemi J. (2016). Science and Technology of Materials McGraw-Hill.



The different types of multi-material collections can be categorised by the materials for collection, into the following main groups:

  • ‘heavy’ multi-material collection: covers a rather limited proportion of waste (glass and plastic bottles and flasks, and metal cans), which accounts for approximately 15-20% of the total waste produced;

‘light’ multi-material collection: includes the dry recyclable waste categories, excluding glass. This therefore includes materials such as paper, plastic and metal, accounting for 30-40% of total waste.

SOURCE: ISPRA, Definition of technical standards in urban sanitation services.



Packaging consisting of several independent components made of different materials. Unlike composite packaging, the various materials that make up multi-material packaging can be separated. The following are examples of multi-material packaging: a box of chocolates (paper for the box, plastic for the moulded container inside), a bag of sweets (plastic for the bag, paper for the individual sweets), a coffee can (aluminium for the can, plastic for the lid), etc. 

SOURCE: CONAI (2020). Guide to membership and to the application of the Environmental Contribution (Volume 1).



A chemical reaction where a molecule loses one or more electrons by yielding them to another species. As a result of the process, one or more atoms of the first species increase their degree of oxidation (they oxidise), while one or more atoms of the second species decrease it (they reduce). 

SOURCE: Treccani Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology.



An operation that makes a hole or series of holes through a compact material.

SOURCE: Treccani Encyclopaedia.



Ferrous scrap which is ground and reduced to small pieces.




Reducing the quantity and the adverse impacts on the environment of the materials and substances used in packaging and packaging waste at the production stage, as well as at the marketing, distribution, use and post-consumption management stages, particularly through the development of non-polluting products and technologies.

SOURCE: Directive 2008/98/EC, Article 3, Paragraph 12.



A control system that uses ionising radiation detection to identify and monitor the presence of radioactive materials.

SOURCE: Federacciai.



Any recovery operation where waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances, whether for their original function or for other purposes. It includes reprocessing of organic material but does not include energy recovery and reprocessing into materials that are to be used as fuels or for backfilling operations. 

SOURCE: Directive 2008/98/EC, Article 3, Paragraph 17 (19 November 2008). Available at EUR-Lex.



Any operation whose principal result enables waste to serve a useful purpose by replacing other materials which would otherwise have been used to fulfil a particular function, or waste being prepared to fulfil that function, in the plant or in the wider economy. 

SOURCE: Directive 2008/98/EC, Article 3, Paragraph 15.



The action of filling or reusing a packaging product several times for an identical use to the one it was intended for. In this case there is no production of packaging waste, as the holder has no desire to ‘discard’ the packaging.

SOURCE: RICREA Consortium. Glossary.



Passing an incoherent, granular or fragmentary mass through a sieve, either to separate the useful part from slag, waste or foreign bodies, or to separate elements of a given size from others of a larger size. 

SOURCE: Treccani Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology.



All waste that ceases to be waste when it undergoes a recovery operation, including recycling, and meets specific criteria.  

SOURCE: Legislative Decree 205/10, Article 184-ter (3 December 2010).



Collection which, according to cost-benefit, effectiveness, transparency and efficiency criteria: i) categorises municipal waste into materials of the same type, at the time of collection or, for wet organic waste, also at the time of treatment; ii) separates packaging waste from other municipal waste, provided this waste can be recovered. 

SOURCE: Legislative Decree 152/06, Article 183, Paragraph 1, Letter F (3 April 2006).



A set of techniques for the production and initial processing of iron, cast iron, steel and ferroalloys, through to the production of semi-finished products such as ingots, billets, sheets, etc. It includes extractive metallurgy, which involves the production of pig iron from iron ore, and technological metallurgy, which encompasses the manufacture of various types of steel and cast iron.

SOURCE: Treccani Encyclopaedia.



The shelf life of a product is the estimated time it will last; in other words, the period during which the quality of the product remains unchanged. 

SOURCE: Bucchetti, V., Ciravegna, E. (2009). Le parole del packaging: Glossario Ragionato per il sistema-imballaggio (“The Words of Packaging: a Reasoned Glossary for the Packaging System”). Dativo.



A process such as coating, lining or lacquering, where a thin layer of fluid or molten material is applied to the surface of a substrate. In most cases this is a plastic film, but it may also be a sheet of paper, a metal box or a glass. 

SOURCE: Piergiovanni L., Limbo S., (2010). Food packaging: Materiali, tecnologie e soluzioni (“Materials, technologies and solutions”), Milan, Springer-Verlag.



A measure of the energy that a specimen can absorb before breaking. It is derived from the ratio between the energy required to fracture (which corresponds to the area enclosed by the curve) and the surface area of the specimen. 

SOURCE: Piergiovanni L., Limbo S., (2010). Food packaging: Materiali, tecnologie e soluzioni (“Materials, technologies and solutions”), Milan, Springer-Verlag.



According to Article 268, Paragraph 11 of Legislative Decree 152/2006, VOCs are defined as any organic compound that has a vapour pressure of 0.01 kPa or more at 293.15 K (20°C). There are various sources of Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) pollution in the indoor air: the human ‘occupants’ (through their breathing and body surface), cosmetics or deodorants, heating devices, various cleaning materials and products (e.g. glues, adhesives, solvents, paints), recently washed clothes in the laundry, cigarette smoke, and work equipment such as printers and photocopiers. VOCs can cause a wide range of effects ranging from sensory discomfort to serious health complications; at high concentrations in indoor environments, they can have effects on numerous organs or apparatuses, particularly the central nervous system. Some VOCs are recognised carcinogens for humans (benzene) or animals (carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene). 

SOURCE: Ministry of Health, Volatile Organic Compounds,



Any substance or object which the holder discards, intends to discard or is required to discard.

SOURCE: Directive 2008/98/EC, Article 3, Paragraph 1.



A procedure which allows solid parts to be permanently connected to each other and which achieves continuity of material where it is applied. Welding in its most common sense involves applying localised heat to melt the material: the quality of heat sealing, or thermowelding, is determined by the substances used in the process, the time, temperature and pressure. Ultrasonic welding is a method of heat sealing achieved by applying ultrasonic frequencies (20 to 40 kHz) to the materials that will be joined; the vibration at the interfaces generates sufficiently localised heat to soften and melt the thermoplastic materials. Cold welding or contact welding, on the other hand, is produced by an adhesive and creates a bond from contact pressure.

SOURCE: Bucchetti, V., Ciravegna, E. (2009). Le parole del packaging: Glossario Ragionato per il sistema-imballaggio (“The Words of Packaging: a Reasoned Glossary for the Packaging System”). Dativo.


Reference regulations


Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on a revised monitoring framework for the circular economy, COM2023/206.


Decision 97/129/EC: Commission Decision of January 28, 1997 establishing an identification system for packaging materials pursuant to European Parliament and Council Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste.


Legislative Decree 152 of 3 April 2006, Environmental Regulations.


Legislative Decree 116 of 3 September 2020, Implementation of Directive (EU) 2018/851 amending Directive 2008/98/EC on waste and implementation of Directive (EU) 2018/852 amending Directive 1994/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste.


Decreto Ministeriale del 28 settembre 2022, n.360, che adotta le Linee Guida sull’etichettatura ambientale ai sensi dell’art. 219, comma 5, del decreto legislativo 3 aprile 2006, n. 152, per il corretto adempimento degli obblighi di etichettatura degli imballaggi da parte dei soggetti responsabili.


Ministerial Decree 360 of 28 September 2022, adopting the Environmental Labelling Guidelines pursuant to Article 219, Paragraph 5 of Legislative Decree 152 of 3 April 2006, for the correct implementation of packaging labelling obligations by responsible parties.


Directive (EU) 94/62/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 December 1994 on packaging and packaging waste.

Directive (EU) 2004/12/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 February 2004 amending Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste - Statement by the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament.

Directive (EU) 2008/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 November 2008 on waste and repealing certain directives.

Directive (EU) 2018/852 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 30 2018 amending Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste.


Bibliography and websites


Berger, K. R. (2002). A brief history of packaging. University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, EDIS.

Bucchetti, V. (2005). Packaging design. Storia, linguaggi, progetto. Poli.Design. FrancoAngeli.

Bucchetti, V., Ciravegna, E. (2009). Le parole del packaging: Glossario Ragionato per il sistema-imballaggio. Dativo.

Celaschi, F. (2008). Design mediatore tra bisogni. In C. Germak (Ed.), Uomo al centro del progetto Design per un nuovo umanesimo (pp. 40–52). Allemandi.

CONAI. (2014). Etichetta per il cittadino: Vademecum per una etichetta volontaria ambientale che guidi il cittadino alla raccolta differenziata degli imballaggi.

Maris, E., Froelich, D., Aoussat, A., & Naffrechoux, E. (2014). From recycling to eco-design. In Handbook of recycling (pp. 421-427). Elsevier.

McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2010). Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things. North point press.

Parlamento Europeo (2023). Economia circolare: in che modo l’UE intende realizzarla entro il 2050?

Pellizzari, A., & Genovesi, E. (2021). Neomateriali 2.0 nell’economia circolare. Ambiente.

Piergiovanni, L., & Limbo, S. (2010). Food packaging: Materiali, tecnologie e soluzioni. Springer Science & Business Media.

RICREA. (2022). Green Economy Report.

RICREA. (2023). Relazione sulla gestione 2022 Bilancio e programma specifico di prevenzione.

Rigamonti L., Grosso M., Biganzoli L., Tua C., (2018). Mappatura delle pratiche di riutilizzo degli imballaggi in Italia: Valutazione LCA della pratica di riutilizzo dei fusti in acciaio per prodotti chimici e petrolchimici. CONAI.

Wang P. et al. (2021). Efficiency stagnation in global steel production urges joint supply- and demand-side mitigation Efforts. Nature Communication.



RICREA Consortium.

Etichetta CONAI.

Metal Packaging Europe.

Pensare Futuro. CONAI.

Progettare riciclo. 

Recycles Forever.