Steel Cans

Plastic and aluminum containers have replaced steel in the waste stream.

Steel Containers May Have originated in 14th century Bohemia. In 1809, a Frenchman invented a process to package preserved food in cans. Three years later, tinplated cans were produced in Britain. In 1938, the first steel beer can was produced.

Steel cans are made from tinplate steel, which is produced in basic oxygen furnaces. A thin layer of tin is applied to the can's inner and outer surfaces to prevent rusting and to protect food and beverage flavors. As a result, steel cans are often called “tin cans.” However, a chromium wash is replacing tin in the canmaking process.

Most steel cans are used for food products, followed by paint, aerosols and other products. Steel cans account for more than 90 percent of food cans. More than 600 shapes, styles and sizes of containers are used. The steel can recycling rate has skyrocketed, but the amount and percentage of steel cans in municipal solid waste has declined dramatically in the last 40 years due to lighterweight aluminum and plastic containers replacing steel cans.

Electric arc furnaces primarily use scrap steel for fuel, while basic oxygen furnaces primarily use virgin raw materials.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C. E-mail the author at:


American Iron & Steel Institute,

“Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1998 Update,” EPA Office of Solid Waste

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition,

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006,” Office of Solid Waste,

“Scrap Specifications Circular 2007,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries,

Steel Recycling Institute, Pittsburgh,

*Data is from 2006 EPA estimates.

Steel Cans Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:


  • 2.5 million tons, or 1.0% by weight.*

  • 16.7 pounds per person, per year.*

  • 30.3 billion cans, or 101 per person, per year.

  • An average can weighs 2.6 oz.


  • 1.58 million tons, or 63% recycling rate.*

  • 63% rate in 2006 (industry data).

Recycled Content:

  • Steel cans produced in a basic oxygen furnace can have up to 30 percent recycled content.

  • Steel products produced in an electric arc furnace can have almost 100 percent recycled content.


  • Steel cans do not compost.

  • Steel cans rust and are biodegradable when exposed to the elements.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 0.93 million tons, or 0.5% of discarded MSW by weight.*

  • Noncombustible.

  • Magnets remove steel cans from incineration.

Landfill Volume:

  • 4.03 million cubic yards, or 1% of landfilled MSW in 1997.


  • Whole, unflattened steel cans weigh 150 pounds per cubic yard (lbs./cu. yd.).

  • Baled cans weigh 850 lbs./cu. yd.

  • Landfilled cans weigh 560 lbs./cu. yd.

Source Reduction:

  • Steel cans have one third less metal than 20 years ago.

  • Tinplate thickness reduced by 30 percent in the last 25 years.

Recycling Markets:

  • Steel mills are the largest market.

  • The basic oxygen process makes tinplate, appliances, car bodies and steel framing.

  • Electric arc furnaces make steel shapes, such as railroad ties and bridge spans.

  • Detinners remove tin from steel cans.

  • Foundries use scrap to make castings and molds.

End Market Specifications:

  • ISRI Ferrous Scrap Guidelines FS 213, “Steel Can Bundles.” Cans may be baled without removal of paper labels, but must be free of other non-metallics.

  • Non-ferrous metals and large pieces of plastic can create safety and production problems in a steel furnace.