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Profiles in Garbage: Steel Cans

Steel cans account for more than 95 percent of food cans.

Steel containers may have originated in 14th century Bohemia. In 1810, a Frenchman, Nicholas Appert, invented a process to package preserved food. That same year, an Englishman, Peter Durand, received a patent that led to the production of tinplated cans two years later. 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 95 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 competition from lighter weight aluminum and plastic containers.

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

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


Steel Can Facts*


  • 2.3 million tons, or 0.9% by weight.
  • 14.88 pounds (lbs.) per person per year.
  • 30 billion cans or 100 per person.
  • An average can weighs 2.45 oz.


  • 1.54 million tons, a 67% recycling rate.
  • 67.1% rate in 2010 (industry data).

Recycled Content:

  • Steel can sheet is produced in a basic oxygen furnace and has at least 25% recycled content.
  • Steel products produced in an electric arc furnace can have almost 100% recycled content.


  • Steel cans do not compost.
  • Steel cans rust and are biodegradable when exposed to the elements.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 0.76 million tons, or 0.5% of discarded MSW by weight.
  • Noncombustible.
  • Magnets remove steel cans from incineration.

Landfill Volume:

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

Landfill Density:

  • 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 last 25 years.

Recycling Markets:

  • Steel mills are the largest market.
  • Basic oxygen process makes tinplate, appliances, car bodies and steel framing.
  • Electric arc furnaces make steel shapes like 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.



American Iron & Steel Institute, Washington, www.steel.org

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/msw99.htm

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

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

Steel Recycling Institute, Pittsburgh, www.recycle-steel.org

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

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