PROFILES IN GARBAGE:Aluminum Packaging

Bauxite ore is mined and refined into alumina (aluminum oxide), a primary feedstock for aluminum metal. Scrap aluminum equals one-third of America's total aluminum supply. Recycled aluminum cans supply more than one-fifth of the total aluminum scrap used as a raw material.

Twenty-two percent of the aluminum used in America goes into packaging. This is the second largest use for aluminum, trailing transportation products that use almost one-third of American's aluminum supply. Aluminum is the third most-used material in automobiles.

Aluminum packaging is produced in both rigid and foil forms. Rigid aluminum containers are used for beverages 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 80 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 municipal solid waste (MSW). Aluminum cans are the most valuable municipal recyclable on a per pound basis.

Chaz Miller is director of state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C. E-mail the author at:

Aluminum Packaging Municipal Solid Waste Facts:


  • 1.97 million tons or 0.9% by weight.*
  • 1.59 million tons of cans per year.*
  • 380,000 tons of foil per year.*
  • 14.44 pounds per person per year.*
  • 11.63 pounds of cans and 2.81 pounds of foil per person per year.*
  • 101 billion cans or 370 per person were used in 1999.
  • 1 can weighs less than 0.03 pounds.
  • Recycling Rate:

  • 870,000 tons or 44.2%.*
  • 840,000 tons or 54.5% for cans.*
  • 950,000 tons or 62.1% for cans in 2000 (industry data).
  • 30,000 tons or 7.9% for foil.*
  • Recycled Content:

  • 51% for cans in 2000 (industry data).
  • Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 1.1 million tons or 0.7% of discarded MSW by weight.*
  • 750,000 tons of cans and 350,000 tons of foil.*
  • Aluminum is noncombustible and can end up as a residue in incinerator ash.
  • Landfill Volume:

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

  • Landfilled cans weigh 250 pounds per cubic yard (lbs/cu. yd).*
  • Landfilled foil weighs 550 lbs/cu. yd.*
  • Loose cans have a density of 50 lbs/cu. yd to 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 2000, 33.12 cans weighed 1 lb.
  • Recycling Markets:

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

    End-Market Specifications:

    ISRI guidelines for nonferrous scrap: NF-98. “Old can stock” specs include non-beverage cans. “Shredded,” “densified,” “baled” and “briquetted” specs exclude non-beverage cans.

    Contaminants include dirt, moisture, plastic, glass and other metals. Lead is a problem. A magnet will separate steel cans from aluminum, but other contaminants are more difficult to spot.

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


    Aluminum Association, Washington, D.C. “Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1998 Update,” EPA Office of Solid Waste, 1999

    “Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va.

    “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 1998,” EPA, Office of Solid Waste, 2000.

    “Scrap Specifications Circular 2001,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C.

    *1999 EPA estimates.