Recyclable steel cans — some of the sturdiest common containers you use on a daily basis — are having a huge impact on climate change.
Empac, European Metal Packaging, recently conducted a study that shows steel cans have reduced their impact on climate change by almost one-third since 2000. Between 2000 and 2013, the carbon footprint of the average unit of steel packaging has decreased by 32 percent. Empac believes this is a result of increased rates of recycling, successful reduction of unit weights and greener methods of production.
“This new study demonstrates how steel as a material contributes to the sustainable development of the can,” said Stéphane Tondo, president of the Association of Producers of Steel for Packaging (APEAL). “It is important that our customers, and all our stakeholders, have the full picture so that they can make informed and sustainable choices about packaging.”
Clearly Americans are getting better at recycling — particularly when it comes to steel. According to a Pew study, in fact, steel cans and other steel packaging are in the top four for major wastestream items recycled in 2013.
Steel is almost always suitable for comprehensive reuse: Common estimates indicate that over 80 percent of steel ever produced is still in use in some form today. That form is extremely likely to be something other than its first incarnation. As the Steel Recycling Institute indicates, U.S. scrap steel is the largest source of raw material for steelmaking in the U.S. “In fact, in each of the past 50 years, more than 50 percent of the steel produced in this country has been recycled through the steelmaking process.” Over 70 percent of steel cans are recycled in Europe and over 65 percent in the U.S.
It’s helpful that steel packaging is elementarily simple: Unlike other packaging, its contents are simply steel — and therefore easy to melt down and repurpose. Popular Mechanics, in a 2008 piece, “Is Recycling Worth It?” offered a simple plaudit for a virtuous, and potentially endless cycle. “The best recycling is closed-loop: Steel cans and glass bottles are recycled into more cans and bottles, which are in turn recyclable.”
Also, steel packaging is getting lighter. Tata Steel Europe has reduced the weight of their steel beverage cans by over 30 percent in the last 20 years. According to a 2013 Steel Marketing Development Institute study, steel cans in the U.S. are 30 percent lighter than they were 25 years ago. Lighter cans use less metal per unit and require less energy to transport.
Improvements in steel manufacturing and design have led to stronger cans that bear more weight. One would never stack the equivalent of 50 cartons of orange juice or 50 boxes of pasta on top of one another in shipping, but cans are another matter. The space efficiency that stacking provides translates into fuel efficiency, as each shipment can contain more product.
Finally, the production of steel packaging, whether new or recycled, has grown steadily more environmentally friendly, both in Europe and the U.S. The Empac study revealed a significant decline in water depletion per average unit in the span between 2006 and 2013. The World Steel Association indicates a 60 percent reduction in its energy consumption per ton of steel over the last 50 years, and additional energy savings continue to be yielded with continued tweakings of method and production control.
Metal packaging companies continue to reduce their carbon footprint with lighter, more sustainably produced cans.