Sustainability Advantages of Cans
Both Aluminum and Steel Cans Provide Sustainability Advantages
Metal cans are unique in that recycling them has a significant environmental and economic impact that occurs today at scale and that impact can happen over and over again because metal recycles forever. For these reasons and more, the aluminum and steel can are the superior, sustainable package in both the beverage and food container categories.
Textbook Example of the Circular Economy: The circular economy focuses on how to eliminate waste and keep resources in circulation as long as possible. The aluminum can exemplifies the circular economy because most all recycled aluminum cans turn into new cans, and the can is recycled at scale with existing infrastructure and technology. The aluminum in cans has the ability to keep circulating forever since aluminum can be recycled infinitely. This is how 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in circulation. See Key Sustainability Facts of the Aluminum Can.
Significant Environmental Impact from Recycling: Making a beverage can from recycled aluminum reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90 percent compared to using new aluminum. There’s also greenhouse gas savings with cans during transportation and cooling. On a per container basis, emissions associated with a 12-oz can are 45 percent lower than a 12-oz glass bottle and 49 percent lower than a 20-oz plastic bottle when delivered and chilled in small markets and convenience stores.
Significant Economic Impact from Recycling: Aluminum beverage cans are typically the most valuable material in the single stream recycling system. This is central to the recent finding that most material recovery facilities (MRF) in the United States that separate single stream recycling would not be able to operate without the revenue from used beverage cans (UBCs). In fact, a third of the revenue for a typical MRF in a non-deposit state comes from UBCs. In total, the 42.7 billion cans recycled in 2019 were worth $700 million for MRFs.
Highest Recycling Rate of all Beverage Containers: The aluminum can industry’s recycling rate is 46 percent, significantly more than plastic PET bottles (21%) and glass bottles (40%). This means that of all the cans produced and filled with your favorite beverage in a single year, nearly half of them were melted down for recycling.
Highest Recycled Content of all Beverage Containers: The average beverage can that a U.S. consumer is holding contains 73 percent recycled content. This high amount of recycled content results in a significant environmental impact because making a can from recycled aluminum reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90 percent compared to using new aluminum. Plastic PET and glass bottles are way behind in average recycled content at 6 percent and 23 percent, respectively. In fact, simply to have the material available for PET bottles to reach just 25 percent recycled content would require every American to recycle an additional 100 plastic PET bottles each year.
On top of these sustainability advantages, beverage cans provide other benefits including fast chilling, 360-degree marketing, locking in quality since the product is shielded from light and oxygen, and efficient packing for transportation. Learn more about the aluminum can’s numerous advantages in taste, innovation, sustainability and performance at CMI’s Open Up To Cans website.
Aluminum Cans Show Highest Circular Performance and Potential of U.S. Beverage Packages, New Analysis Finds: A new report assessing three U.S. beverage packaging types - aluminum cans, glass bottles and plastic PET bottles - finds aluminum cans have the highest circular performance and potential. The analysis, Recycling Unpacked: Assessing the Circular Potential of Beverage Containers in the United States, published by Metabolic as part of a study commissioned by the CMI, examines the role of a circular economy in creating clean, stable material streams that can displace primary resource production as they are recycled and repurposed.
Highest Recycling Rate of all Food Packaging: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that the recycling rate for steel food cans is 71 percent. This is significantly higher than alternative food packaging including plastic (13%), glass (33.9%), cartons (16%) and pouches (2%). The steel food can’s high recycling rate is in part attributable to the ease of separating out the magnetic steel food cans from the rest of the single stream recyclables via magnets.
Steel is Open Loop: Steel in food cans is open loop because it can easily be melted into new steel food cans or incorporated into other products such as bridges and cars. Steel food cans have recycled content of up to 35 percent with available technology.
Significant Environmental Impact From Recycling: Food can production with recycled steel entails 75 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than making food cans with virgin steel. The climate impact of steel food can production has gone down over time. Steel cans have reduced their environmental impact by 32 percent from 2000 to 2013.
This reduction is attributed to three factors:
- Higher recycling rates
- Increased amounts of green energy used for packaging manufacturing
- Continuous improvement via lightweighting. The lightweighting of steel food cans has been dramatic with a 40 percent decline over a recent 30-year timespan.
Prevent Food Waste by Maintaining Quality for Years Without a Cold Chain: Commercially canned food retains quality and taste for between two to five years, all without a cold chain, meaning significant energy savings. Canned food uses 20 percent less energy than refrigerated food and 51 percent less energy than frozen food. Canned food also maintains its high quality over time without any preservatives. The high heat process and airtight seal lock in the product’s quality while locking out germs, air, light and other elements that degrade product quality. And, many recipes call for the can’s entire content to be used at once, thereby avoiding potential food waste. To give one example of the difference with metal cans, consumers waste only around 16 percent of tomatoes and spinach in cans, while 30 to 40 percent of fresh tomatoes and spinach are thrown out.
The reduction in food waste that comes from using food cans adds up. A University of Delaware graduate student research study found that food cans alone save in excess of 1 billion liters of food every year, when compared to food packaged for refrigeration or freezing. If more produce was put in cans, then there would be even less food wasted, resulting in a significant environmental impact. In fact, if the entire U.S. fruit and vegetable supply were canned, rather than packed for refrigeration or freezing, the estimated savings would be~22 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). To put this into perspective, a typical car produces approximately 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year, so it would be similar to removing over 4.7 million cars from the roads.
Keep Food Safe: There has not been a single reported incident of foodborne illness from the failure of metal packaging in more than 40 years.
Provide Nutrition: There are more than 1,500 varieties of canned food available year-round, providing easy access to a world of ingredients anytime. Kids and adults who use six or more canned foods per week are more likely to have diets higher in 17 essential nutrients.