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Profiles in Garbage: Aluminum Packaging

Almost half of all aluminum cans used in the United States are recycled.

Bauxite ore is refined  into alumina (aluminum oxide), one of the primary feedstocks for aluminum metal. Scrap aluminum supplies 30 percent of America’s aluminum supply. Recycled aluminum cans supply a portion of the scrap used as a raw material.

About 26.5 percent of the aluminum used in America goes into packaging. This is the largest use for aluminum, ahead of transportation products, which use 23.7 percent. Aluminum is the second most-used material in new automobiles worldwide.

Aluminum packaging is produced in both rigid and foil forms. Rigid aluminum containers are used for beverage and food packaging. Aluminum cans account for all of the beverage can market, but only a small percentage of the food can market. Cans are 76 percent of aluminum packaging by weight.

Foil packaging is used as a wrapping foil, as semi-rigid packages such as pie plates and frozen food trays, and as flexible packaging such as cigarette foil and candy wrappers.

Aluminum packaging has never had more than 1 percent market share of generated MSW.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. E-mail him at: [email protected]


Aluminum Packaging Facts*


  • 1.9 million tons, or 0.8% of municipal solid waste (MSW) by weight.
  • 1.44 million tons of cans and 460,000 tons of foil.
  • 12.3 pounds (lbs.) per person per year.
  • 9.32 lbs. of cans and 2.98 lbs. of foil per person per year.
  • 93.6 billion cans, or 300 cans per person per year.
  • An aluminum can weighs 0.463 ounces.


  • 680,000 tons of cans or a 49.6% recycling rate.
  • 60.9 billion cans, or a 65.1% can recycling rate in 2010 (industry data).
  • Foil is recycled, but no longer tracked by EPA.

Recycled Content:

  • 68% for cans in 2008 (industry data).

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 1.20 million tons or 0.7% of discarded MSW by weight.
  • 760,000 tons of cans and 460,000 tons of foil.
  • Aluminum is non-combustible and can create residue in incinerator ash.

Landfill Volume:

  • 6.5 million cubic yards or 1.6% of 1997 landfilled MSW.
  • 5.3 million cubic yards of cans and 1.2 million cubic yards of foil in 1997 landfilled MSW.


  • Landfilled cans weigh 250 lbs. per cubic yard (lbs/cu.yd.).
  • Landfilled foil weighs 550 lbs/cu.yd.
  • Loose cans have a density of 50-74 lbs/cu.yd.
  • Flattened cans have a density of 250 lbs/cu.yd.

Source Reduction:

  • In 1972, 21.75 cans weighed 1 lb.
  • In 2012, 34.57 cans weighed 1 lb.

Recycling Markets:

  • Aluminum can sheet manufacturers are the primary market for used aluminum cans.
  • Foil is usually bought by the same markets.

End Market Specifications:

  • ISRI Guidelines for Nonferrous Scrap: NF-2012 include “post-consumer aluminum can scrap,” and “shredded,” “densified,” “baled,” and “briquetted” aluminum used beverage can scrap.
  • Contaminants are dirt, moisture, plastic, glass, and other metals. Lead is a particular problem.
  • “Post-consumer aluminum foil” guidelines call for clean, dry foil.
  • Foil and cans use different alloys and will contaminate each other in the recycling process.



Aluminum Association, www.aluminum.org

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Washington, www.nrc-recycle.org

“Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2010 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, www.epa.gov/osw

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 1998,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, www.epa.gov/osw

Scrap Specifications Circular 2012, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, www.isri.org


*Data is from 2010 EPA estimates, except where noted.

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