For industry insiders who promote cans for food and
beverages, sustainability has always been the name of the
"It's always around us, but we didn't have a label for it,"
said Gregory L. Crawford, vice president of operations at the
Steel Recycling Institute (SRI), Pittsburgh. "The steel food
can is in it for the long haul. It's been quietly doing its job
for many years. It's not flashy, not glamorous, but it has been
Each steel can contains a minimum of 25-percent recycled
content and is endlessly recyclable into new cans, vehicles,
appliances, bridges or any other steel product without a loss
of strength or quality, according to the Steel Market
Development Institute (SMDI), a business unit of the American
Iron and Steel Institute (AISI).
Likewise, aluminum cans go full circle-from being a can back
to being a can-in less than 60 days. "From the refrigerator, to
the recycle bin, melted back down to an aluminum ingot, made
into can sheet, made into a can and back into the
refrigerator," said Kevin Lowry, director of corporate
communications at aluminum manufacturer Alcoa Inc. "The
aluminum can is the ultimate sustainable package."
That's not to say they're not supporting discussions on can
sustainability and pushing strong endorsements on the use and
reuse of cans-steel and aluminum-as environmentally beneficial.
Alcoa is in the process of promoting an increase in aluminum
can recycling rates to more than 75 percent by 2015 from around
54 percent currently.
And while promoters of steel and aluminum disagree about
which metal is superior can stock, they do agree that cans in
general are more sustainable than plastic and other
"Plastic has its challenges in collection, sorting,
processing and shipping to viable end markets for a given scrap
price, which must be competitive with virgin materials,"
"Plastic bottles might be turned into the backing of a
carpet or a T-shirt or a hair comb," Lowry said. "But there are
only so many hair combs the world needs."
But it's the consumer that drives food and beverage
companies to try alternative packaging. The can-in whatever
form-is facing increasing competition from other materials
pouches for tuna and boxes for juice, for instance.
Esther Palevsky, an analyst at Cleveland-based research firm
Freedonia Group, said it's a continuing trend. "As far as
aluminum and steel cans, while cans have much higher recycling
rates than plastic due to well-developed recycling
infrastructures their use is shrinking," she said. "This is
partially due to the maturity of most canned foods and
perceptions that canned foods are not as high-quality as fresh
and frozen products."
While competitive alternatives to cans, including pouches,
aseptic cartons, plastic bottles and jars, are not recycled
easily, "they have other advantages that make them sustainable
options, such as lighter weight, making them less costly to
ship and requiring less fuel for shipping," Palevsky said.
"Also, plastic containers offer the advantage of clarity, which
can be helpful in boosting shelf appeal."
There also are safety concerns regarding cans due to the use
of bisphenol A (BPA) coatings on the inner surfaces, she said,
although cans will remain an important part of the food
packaging mix due to their long shelf life.
So the future growth of the can-in metallic form-has much to
do with ethical consumerism whether people make choices based
on environmental impact or their own opportunistic
"Will there be fewer plastics used in the future? It
probably goes back to consumer convenience and acceptance,"
Crawford said. "People are used to grabbing food. Especially
with two-income families, it's a challenge to get dinner on the
To that end, the groups have been working within the food
packaging arena to reduce misconceptions about cans and make
them easier to use. "Some people think food in cans is less
nutritious, when just the opposite is true," Crawford said.
The SMDI is focusing on the attributes of food cans,
including that food is picked and canned at its peak, locking
in nutrients, according to Rich Tavoletti, director of the
container market for the SMDI. "I wouldn't say there is an
'anti-can' trend, but I do see the government and media
communicating the benefits of fresh, locally grown food," he
said. "This ignores the nutritional, convenience and year-round
availability of canned food."
Tavoletti said he believes that as more consumers are
educated about the nutritional value, year-round availability
and convenience of canned food and they feel good about serving
and eating canned food, there will be more canned food
providing healthy mealtime solutions in homes and in school
To help reverse the soft-package invasion, the steel can
groups are promoting innovations such as easy-open cans with
pull-tabs, resealable cans and microwavable cans.
Can groups are reaching out to consumers and businesses
through the Canned Food Alliance, the Can Manufacturers
Institute, the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, the
Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the Container Recycling
Institute, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and the
Pittsburgh-based Alcoa is trying to attract the attention of
today's consumer by getting hip, rolling out an iPhone
application. "It will make it more convenient and fun to
recycle," Lowery said. "It's a tool to put a group together, to
connect to Facebook. People can have everyone in their group
keep a tally on how well they're doing."