THE ALUMINUM CAN WAS EASILY INTEGRATED into the package market because of its ductility (ability to be molded), its support of carbonated pressure, its lighter weight and its resistance to corrosion (aluminum does not rust). But perhaps the most critical element in the aluminum can's success was its recycling value. Aluminum can recycling excelled economically in its competition with steel because of the efficiencies aluminum cans realized by using recycled materials instead of costly and non-renewable virgin aluminum ore. Steel did not achieve similar economies in the recycling process. Aluminum can recycling became common and responded to the growing concerns of environmentally conscious consumers about the depletion of natural resources and the consequences of what was feared "a throwaway society." The opportunity to market the all-aluminum can as recyclable and environmentally friendly led to its growing acceptance as a product package.
The can's convenience, popularity and versatility attract an increasing variety of products.
Prior to 1970, both steel and aluminum cans were made from virgin materials, with the exception of small amounts of scrap recycled from the manufacturing process. Both industries, however, came to realize the importance of reducing their impact on the environment in the late 1960's and early 1970's as environmental awareness developed. And there were other incentives to initiate recycling. Problems with litter, which was noted by the consumer campaign to "Ban the Can" in the late sixties, provided an additional reason to remove cans from the waste stream. At the same time, manufacturers began to recognize the economics of recycling—namely lower costs from using less material and energy.
Three-piece steel beer can.
Aluminum companies and can makers began to create a nation-wide recycling infrastructure of buy-back centers and by America's first Earth Day in 1970, it had begun to take hold. Cash was paid for empty cans to create value and motivation for consumers to bring back their used cans. Within a decade, recycling had become a way of life. Aluminum can recycling has become a billion-dollar business and one of the world's most successful environmental enterprises. Over the years, the aluminum can has come to be known as the most recyclable package with over 60 percent of cans recycled annually. Of the 51.9 billion soft drink containers recycled in 1998, 44 billion were aluminum cans—compared to 7.6 billion plastic bottles and 300 million glass bottles.
Consumers help divert more than two billion pounds of aluminum each year from the solid waste stream, keeping it out of landfills. Additionally, making new cans from recycled aluminum saves 95 percent of the energy needed to make aluminum from virgin material. Energy savings in 1998 alone were enough to light a city the size of Pittsburgh for six years. Thanks to developments in the can making process, new cans are now made from an average of 54 percent recycled aluminum and old cans are collected, recycled and returned to the grocer's shelf as new cans in as few as 60 days.
Since recycling began, consumers have earned more than ten billion dollars by returning their aluminum beverage cans to the more than 10,000 buy-back centers that now operate nationwide. More than 9,300 cities and counties offer curbside collection, which makes aluminum beverage can recycling easy. Each year, thousands of groups across the country turn cans into cash by collecting and recycling. Many organizations, including schools, Boy and Girl Scout troops, 4-H clubs, and other non-profit and community groups are able to raise money to complete worthwhile projects that may have otherwise gone unfunded.
Advances in can manufacturing technology have also brought lighter aluminum cans. The first two-piece aluminum cans weighed three ounces, while they now each weigh only slightly more than one-half ounce. In 1972, one pound of aluminum yielded only 21.75 cans. Today, by using less material to make each can, one pound of aluminum makes approximately 33 cans—a 52 percent improvement. Even can ends have been made lighter: ends used to weigh about 8.12 pounds per thousand and have been reduced to a mere 6.07 pounds per thousand. This may not seem like much of a difference, but multiplied by the 100 billion cans that are made each year the weight savings is a phenomenal 200 million pounds of aluminum.
Steel cans are recycled too, at a rate of about 58 percent. Approximately 17 billion steel cans are recycled every year, yielding enough recovered steel to build 20 Golden Gate Bridges. And every ton of steel recycled saves the natural resources that would otherwise be used to make new steel: 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone. Consumers can recycle their food cans, as well as all steel cans found at their home or business, including paint and aerosol cans.
Today the can is so ubiquitous, it functions as part of our everyday lives without our even noticing. There are, for example, more than 1,500 varieties of food available in cans and in our fast-paced world we depend on them for their ease and convenience more than ever. Statisticians have estimated that American families spend less than one-seventh the time preparing meals in the nineties as they did just two decades ago. From single-serve to family-size portions, cans provide the perfect package at mealtime. And Americans have, in these health-conscious days, come to rely on the fresh, preservative- and sodium-free foods they reliably find in cans. Because foods harvested for use in cans are packaged within hours of being picked from the fields, they retain as many and often more nutrients than their produce department counterparts.
And Americans more often purchase their beer and soft drinks in cans than any other package. They prefer cans because they are light weight, transportable, unbreakable, and keep their beverages colder. And the can is still the only beverage package that stacks for easy storage in the refrigerator, cooler, or pantry.
Next: A Promising Future