The strengths of stainless steel: Convincing advantages


Stainless steel IBCs and KEGs are sustainable all-rounders

The packaging industry continues to be driven by an increasing focus on sustainability and innovation. Demand for environmentally friendly packaging and circular supply chains is growing. Companies want to achieve their ambitious climate goals with targeted measures. New technologies are being used or developed to improve efficiency in the long term. Intelligent packaging solutions continue to be on-trend.

When it comes to stainless steel bulk containers with a volume of more than 10 litres, there are three targeted further development options that achieve sustainability in the long term: Firstly, to manufacture the stainless steel containers more sustainably in the complete supply chain. Secondly, to use stainless steel in a more resource-efficient way, for example by optimising materials, and, thirdly, to increase the degree of utilisation of the containers. By using active and passive data media, vagabond assets are uniquely identified. In this context, there is considerable scope to significantly improve return logistics in fleet management.

In addition to these further developments, stainless steel bulk containers are considered an environmentally friendly alternative to comparable (single-use) packaging made of plastic, because stainless steel impresses with its durability, reusability and full recyclability.KEGs with a volume greater than or equal to 10 litres and IBCs with a volume greater than 100 litres offer huge potential for use in reusable systems for bulk packaging, for example in the beverage, food, chemical, waste disposal, pharmaceutical or hazardous goods sectors. Plastic containers are usually used as alternative bulk packaging, but these do not offer the same advantages.

Reusable instead of single use

Multiple use for large packaging

The reusability of bulk packaging such as IBCs and KEGs has huge potential for the circular economy. It is more environmentally friendly than comparable single-use packaging in terms of resource consumption and waste prevention. By using stainless steel IBCs and KEGs, companies can reduce their ecological footprint in the long term.

"Bulk packaging made of stainless steel can be reused for a very long time and can also be fully recycled multiple times at the end of its life cycle. This makes stainless steel a particularly sustainable material for the beverage industry, for example," explains Guido Klinkhammer, Managing Director of SCHÄFER Container Systems.

According to a WWF estimate, reusable systems for B2B and transport packaging could save 104,000 tonnes of transport waste per year (source: WWF study on pathways to a circular plastic packaging system in Germany). KEGs and IBCs made of stainless steel can be easily cleaned or sterilised and used again and again – often for several decades. Their use optimises logistics. Since the packaging is used several times, it does not have to be constantly produced and transported anew.

Furthermore, IBCs and KEGs are standardised in size and shape and can be stacked efficiently for transport. This reduces transport costs. The robust stainless steel body almost completely eliminates transport damage. As a result, this reduces energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Although the investment may be higher than for comparable single-use containers, companies can save costs in the long term – due to the durability and service life – in particular if they have high packaging needs. Single-use plastic IBCs are also much more difficult to adapt to specific customer requirements, especially with additional top connections required further down the production process.

It is not for nothing that reusable stainless steel IBCs in various sizes and designs are used in numerous industries for transport, storage and processing. IBCs for hazardous goods and stainless steel beverage KEGs in particular are among the most frequently used bulk packaging today. A 20.5-litre stainless steel KEG replaces approx. 11,000 beverage cans over a useful life of 30 years.

Recycling rate

Recycling stainless steel after decades of reuse

IBCs and KEGs made of stainless steel can be completely recycled as often as desired without the material losing its excellent properties. In addition, stainless steel packaging achieves the highest recycling rates of all packaging materials in Germany, at over 90 per cent. The European average is 76 per cent, according to the German Metal Packaging Association (Verband Metallverpackungen).

Plastic packaging is also recyclable, but recycling rates for plastic packaging are low in many countries – not only because of the lack of economic efficiency, but also because of the lack of functioning recycling systems. Most types of plastics used can only be recycled to a limited extent anyway. This is all the more tragic because a PET bottle, for example, takes 450 years to decompose under the influence of UV radiation.

EU countries produced more than 29 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2020. At 40.5 per cent, plastic packaging accounts for the largest share (source: statista). According to a WWF study on pathways to a circular plastic packaging system in Germany, 89 per cent of all plastic packaging consists of virgin material. The proportion of recycled plastics in packaging is low, accounting for the remaining 11 per cent.

Plastic packaging

in the food indstry

Especially in the food industry, plastics are a difficult application, because some plastic packaging can release chemicals that are harmful to health. It is possible for plasticisers such as bisphenol A to pass from plastics into food and affect the hormone system. This is why many countries have banned BPA in food packaging. However, there are justified concerns about other potentially harmful chemicals.

Careful use of natural resources

The production of metal packaging requires a high input of energy and resources. The extraction and processing of metals generates greenhouse gas emissions and can have an impact on the environment. That is why CO2-reduced steels are now increasingly being used.

For example, EMW, as one of the largest independent European steel service centres, has entered into supply agreements for CO2-reduced premium steel with major European steel producers. The goal is to achieve complete climate neutrality in Scope 1 and 2 by as early as 2030.

Currently, the use of steel scrap for the production of new steel is being promoted. On the one hand, it is a sustainable method, as it reduces the need for primary raw materials such as iron ore. In addition, using steel scrap saves energy and reduces emissions compared to the production of steel from primary raw materials.

Plastic packaging for industrial use, on the other hand, is still made from crude oil or natural gas and pollutes the environment with greenhouse gas emissions of 15.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (source: WWF study on pathways to a circular plastic packaging system in Germany).

Metal Recycles Forever & SKA

Support of the circular economy

Consistent support for an efficient circular economy with durable stainless steel and the reduction of plastics would significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Organisations, such as the Steel KEG Association or the "metal recycles forever" initiative, and their members, promote the use of recyclable metal packaging with their activities and contribute to a change in awareness in industry and trade.

Self-healing, hygienic and biocompatible

In general, all metals have the same basic properties such as good thermal conductivity, electrical conductivity, metallic lustre and malleability. These properties vary considerably in each metal. Precious metals are particularly resistant to acids, alkalis and oxidation (corrosion).

Alloyed stainless steels, i.e. mixtures of iron and other metals, are used in the packaging industry. The best-known stainless steels are V2A (chromium-nickel steel) and V4A (chromium-nickel-molybdenum steel). These alloyed steels have a thin passive layer on the surface. Therefore, they do not need any additional surface protection.

The good performance of stainless steel in terms of hygiene can be explained by three well-known properties. The smooth surfaces make it difficult for microorganisms to accumulate. This means that germs and fungi cannot find a suitable breeding ground and viruses cannot find host cells.

Furthermore, this material does not react with common cleaning agents or disinfectants. Exceptions to this are cleaning agents that react with oxygen, such as chlorine cleaners. However, the consistent surface facilitates thorough cleaning of the packaging from the inside and outside.

And finally, the ions of the chromium-nickel surface have an antibacterial effect, as an English study by the University of Manchester from 2007 impressively proves. Interaction with microorganisms and the associated incalculable risks for people and the environment are reliably prevented.

For aseptic applications, however, it is not only the material that is responsible, but also the design and finish. One example of this is the aseptic reusable SLC IBC from SCHÄFER Container Systems, which is used in the food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries.

Durable and safe in tough use

Another advantage is that stainless steel does not release particles, not even when exposed to industrial use. Consequently, organic substances – even most medicines are weak organic acids or bases – are not contaminated when they come into contact with stainless steel. Stainless steel containers are therefore ideal when processing, transporting or storing medicines, foodstuffs and liquids such as beer and wine.

Metals typically have high reflectivity and opacity, regardless of the material thickness of the packaging. In this respect, stainless steel alloys are ideally suited to shield hazardous materials, food, cosmetics and medicines from these undesirable influences.

In addition, closed metal packaging protects the contents from external vapours and gases that could penetrate, because metal is intrinsically absolutely diffusion-tight. This is one reason why stainless steel KEGs are being used more and more in wine bottling. Plastics do not have this physical property, which means that plastic containers are basically permeable – in technical terms, they are permeable in both directions for gases such as water vapour.

Heatable containers are often used in process engineering, such as the RCB 1.000 from SCHÄFER Container Systems, which is used in the food industry by chocolate manufacturers, among others.

Conclusion – Number one in the cycle

Overall, stainless steel bulk packaging usually has a significantly lower environmental impact in terms of waste and pollution compared to conventional plastic bulk packaging. A sustainable packaging solution should meet the specific requirements of the product and the situation at hand.

Stainless steel containers are real all-rounders that can be used in almost any industry for transport and storage. If properly reused, their service life often extends over decades. In the case of KEGs used in breweries, this is around 30 years. Through recycling and reuse, bulk stainless steel packaging has become an important part of the cycle of reuse. The decisive advantage lies in the consistently high quality of the metal within this cycle.

Sometimes, reducing the packaging material overall, regardless of the type of material, can be an environmentally friendly measure, such as with the weight-optimised ECO KEG and IBC lightweight constructions from SCHÄFER Container Systems. There, packaging solutions and application areas are continuously being developed with a view to climate neutrality by 2030.