Profiles in Garbage: Aluminum Packaging

Twenty-two percent of the aluminum used in America goes into packaging. This is the second largest use for aluminum, trailing only transportation products.

Aluminum packaging is produced in both rigid and foil forms. Rigid aluminum containers are used for beverages and food.

Aluminum cans account for virtually all of the beverage can market, but only a small percentage of the food can market. 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 never has accounted for more than 1 percent of generated municipal solid waste (MSW).

Aluminum Packaging Solid Waste (MSW) Facts: Generated * 1.94 million tons or 0.9% by weight.*

* 1.58 million tons of cans per year.*

* 360,000 tons of foil per year.*

* 14.3 pounds of packaging per person per year.*

* 11.7 pounds of cans and 2.66 pounds of foil per person per year.*

* 102 billion aluminum cans, or 377 cans per person, used in 1998.

* 1 can weighs 11/433 of a pound.

* 79% of cans are generated in homes and 21% by businesses.*

* 90% of foil is generated in homes and 10% by businesses.*

Recycled * 940,000 tons for a 48.5% aluminum packaging recycling rate.*

* 910,000 tons for a 59.5% recycling rate for cans.*

* Industry data shows 969,000 tons for a 62.8% can recycling rate in 1998.

* 30,000 tons for an 8.3% foil recycling rate.*

Recycled Content * 33% of total aluminum industry raw material supply was recycled aluminum in 1998.

* 51.6% for cans in 1996 according to industry data.

Composted Aluminum packaging does not compost.

Burned or Landfilled * 1 million tons or 0.6% of discarded MSW by weight.*

* 670,000 tons of cans and 330,000 tons of foil.*

* Aluminum is non-combustible and can result in residue in incinerator ash.

Landfill Volume * 6.5 million cubic yards or 1.6% of landfilled MSW.*

* 5.3 million cubic yards of cans and 1.2 million cubic yards of foil.*

Density * Landfilled aluminum cans weigh 250 pounds per cubic yard.*

* Landfilled foil weighs 550 pounds per cubic yard.*

* Loose aluminum cans have a density of 50 to 74 pounds per cubic yard.

* Flattened cans have a density of 250 pounds per cubic yard.

Source Reduction In 1972, 21.75 cans weighed one pound. In 1998, 33.04 cans weighed one pound.

Markets Aluminum beverage containers are one of the most valuable recyclables due to energy cost savings. The aluminum industry paid approximately $990 million in 1998 to recyclers for used cans. Foil packaging is less valuable. Most pricing sheets give street, processor (toll) and end market prices.

Companies that produce aluminum can sheets are the primary market for used aluminum cans. They use the cans as raw material in making can sheets. Foil usually is bought by the same markets.

End-Market Specifications Aluminum cans fall under Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Guidelines for Nonferrous Scrap: NF-98. "Old can stock" specifications include non-beverage cans. "Shredded," "densified," "baled" and "briquetted" specifications exclude non-beverage cans.

Contaminants include dirt, moisture, plastic, glass and other metals. Lead is a particular problem. While a magnet will easily separate steel cans from aluminum cans, other contaminants are harder to spot.

Foil markets generally want clean, dry foil. Because foil and cans use different alloy, they will contaminate each other in the recycling process.

Recycling Cost and Value * Can collection costs range from $526 to $743 per ton.

* Can processing costs average $143.41 with a range of $72.88 to $362.59.

* No collection or processing cost data exists for aluminum foil.

Aluminum Association. Website:

Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1998 Update, 1999. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste, Washington D.C. Website:

Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines: National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va. Website:

National Solid Wastes Management Association's Waste Recyclers Council, Washington, D.C., Processing and Collection Cost Studies. Website:

Scrap Specifications Circular 1998, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C. Website: