How Recyclable is Metal, Really?

Tue Dec 11 2018 /
Diana Whitaker

How Recyclable is Metal, Really?

In a word, very!

Metal is the most recycled material in the world and metal packaging can increase food shelf life, decreasing waste. Metal recycling allows for a reduced carbon footprint, as well as reducing the use of natural resources.

Recycling scraps helps reduce the amount of energy being used, since melting down already processed metal requires less energy than processing raw ore.

Cradle to cradle is a concept that follows a product from creation, transportation, use, eventual disposal, and recycle. Because metal does not degrade over time, over ⅔ of all the aluminum ever produced is still in existence and usable today. This means that metals are permanently available and can go through the closed loop or circular economy of a cradle to cradle life cycle indefinitely. A steel can once used for soup could one day be part of your new car. Recycling metal saves water, money, energy, fuels, and other resources associated with producing metals.

Canned food has the longest shelf life of any packaged food. Because shelf stable cans eliminate the need for refrigeration, only 1% of canned food goes to waste. If you buy a package of meat at the deli, it will spoil in a matter of days even if left in the refrigerator. If not consumed, not only has the food been wasted, but the time, money, effort, and resources spent on production, packaging, and transporting the product have also been wasted. In contrast, canned goods remain viable for years. Canned meat left in the pantry for a month is perfectly edible and safe. Increasing shelf life by canning helps to eliminate needless waste.

Metal packaging is easily separated by consumers, or by industrial recycling centers that use magnets for sorting and labels can be easily removed. 66% of steel packaging and 50% of aluminum packaging is recycled and metal can be recycled indefinitely without losing its integrity.

With more than 80 million tons of steel recycled each year, steel ranks number one as the most recycled packaging material. Steel scrap is highly valued, and with economic incentives it is easy to see why so many people choose to recycle it. By recycling one ton of steel over 3,000 pounds of iron ore, 1,600 pounds of coal, and 260 pounds of limestone are saved. Due to natural properties, steel manufacturing uses less energy and creates lower emissions than aluminum.

But steel scrap is not just recycled into more cans- a recycled steel can may go on to be a kitchen appliance, building, a car, or even a can again. Here are some statistics on the use of steel:

  • 50% of our steel currently goes to producing buildings and infrastructures

  • 16 % to mechanical equipment

  • 13% to Automobiles

  • 11% to metal products such as furniture and packaging

  • 5% to other transportation such as rail cars and boats

  • 3% to electrical equipment and

  • 2% to household appliances

All of these items can be recycled and reproduced!

The lightweight yet strong nature of aluminum lowers shipping costs and fuel consumption. Aluminum walls can also be thinned during the can making process which reduces the volume of metal used and makes the shipped product lighter which reduces carbon emissions since more metal can be shipped per trip. When its highly recyclable nature is also considered, aluminum becomes a very attractive material.

Although steel is the most recycled material in the world, aluminums life cycle energy consumption boasts 20% less than that of steel. Even when new aluminum needs to be produced, the energy expended to make it is constantly decreasing. In fact, energy requirements for producing new aluminum is down more than 25% since 1995 and the aluminum industry as a whole has brought its carbon footprint down nearly 40%.

Metal packaging has cut food waste, energy waste, and helped to reduce the overall carbon footprint that we as humans leave. And with continuous innovation, metal will become more and more sustainable!

Enroll in Metal Packaging to learn more!

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