Profiles in Garbage: Steel Cans

Steel containers may have originated in 14th century Bohemia. It wasn't until 1809 that a Frenchman invented a process to package preserved food in cans. Three years later, tinplated cans were produced in Britain. Then, in 1938, the steel beer can was first produced.

Steel cans are made from tinplated 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 often are called “tin cans.” However, a chromium wash is replacing tin in the canmaking process.

Most steel cans are used for food products. Steel cans account for more than 90% of food cans, followed by paint, aerosols and other products. 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 MSW has declined dramatically in the past 40 years as lighterweight aluminum and plastic containers have replaced steel cans.

Electric arc furnaces use a higher percentage of scrap steel than basic oxygen furnaces.

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


American Iron and Steel Institute, Washington, D.C.

“Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1999 Facts and Figures for 1998,” EPA, Washington, D.C.

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

“Scrap Specifications Circular 1998,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C. Steel Recycling Institute, Pittsburgh, Pa.

*1999 EPA estimates.

Steel Cans Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:


  • 2.69 million tons or 1.2% by weight.*
  • 19.72 pounds per person.*
  • 33.4 billion cans or 122 per person.
  • The average can weighs 2.55 ounces.
  • Recycled:

  • 1.5 million tons or a 56.1% recycling rate.*

  • 58.1% rate in 2001 (industry data).

  • Recycled Content:

  • The basic oxygen furnace process uses a minimum of 25% scrap steel.

  • Composted:

  • Steel cans do not compost.

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

  • Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 1.2 million tons or 0.7% of discarded MSW by weight.*

  • Steel cans are noncombustible.

  • Magnets are used to remove steel cans from incineration.

  • Landfill Volume:

  • 4.03 million cubic yards in 1997.
  • 1% of landfilled MSW in 1997.
  • Density:

  • Whole, unflattened steel cans weigh 150 pounds per cubic yard.

  • Baled cans weigh 850 pounds per cubic yard.

  • Landfilled cans weigh 560 pounds per cubic yard.

  • Source Reduction:

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

  • Tinplate thickness has reduced by 30 percent in the past 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 removing paper labels, but must be free of other nonmetallics.

  • Nonferrous metals and large plastic pieces that are not eliminated at processing facilities create safety and production problems in steel furnaces.