Steel cans are used to package everything from pet food to vegetables to soup and are one of the oldest forms of food packaging, dating back to the 14th century. Steel cans are often lined with tin (and thus sometimes referred to as bi-metal cans) to prevent rust and food contamination, but this has no effect on the recyclability of the product.
Steel Can Recycling Preparation
- Most steel cans will have a paper label, which does not need to be removed. The paper will be removed during the recycling process, and since it’s a low quality of paper, it won’t be worth your time to remove and recycle it with other paper.
- You should rinse your cans to remove any leftover food. This will prevent your recycling bin from smelling and reduce the risk of animals attacking your recycling.
- Completely remove the lid (also made of steel) and insert into the can, then pinch the top so it closes. This will also prevent birds or cats from getting their heads stuck in the cans.
- Use Earth911’s recycling directory to find a steel can recycler.
Why Recycle Steel Cans
- Steel has the highest recycling rate of any material, at more than 88 percent. While this is largely due to scrap metal such as cars, steel cans are able to be recycled into any steel product.
- Steels cans may be recycled infinitely with no loss of quality. Unlike glass, paper or plastic, metal is in limited supply, putting extra importance on recycling.
- Two-thirds of all new steel manufactured comes from recycled steel, meaning one-third must still come from virgin material.
Frequent Tin or Steel Can Recycling Questions
Can I recycle steel cans in my curbside recycling program?
Most cities will accept metal cans (aluminum and steel) in the curbside recycling program. You’ll want to verify acceptance through your program as well as any preparation instructions, such as whether to rinse or crush cans.
What is the difference between aluminum cans and steel cans?
While aluminum and steel cans are both made of metal, there are several distinct differences. Steel cans are magnetic (because of the presence of iron), so you can tell if a can is steel by whether it sticks to a magnet. Aluminum is more often used to package beverages (e.g., beer and soda), while steel is more often used to package food (e.g., coffee and pet food). Aluminum cans will make more money than steel cans when recycled, but steel is used in a larger variety of products when recycled, including buildings and cars.
Can I recycle steel cans for money?
Yes, steel cans are purchased by scrap metal recyclers. However, metal is bought in bulk and usually paid by the ton, so unless you have a huge quantity of cans, you’ll likely spend more on gas money than the amount you’ll receive for recycling.
How are steel cans recycled?
First, steel cans must be separated in a materials recovery facility from aluminum cans using magnets (steel will attract, aluminum will not). The cans are crushed and baled, then sent to a metal recycler. Next, cans are pressure-washed with a chemical to remove the tin outer and inner layers, then shredded into tiny pieces and melted in a furnace into flat sheets. This recycled steel can be manufactured into new cans or other steel materials like beams, automotive parts or appliances.
What about metal paint cans or aerosol cans?
Steel cans that contained hazardous products (such as paint) have a different recycling commodity than steel food cans because they are not food grade. Some recycling programs will specifically exclude paint cans as a result. See our aerosol can recycling guide for information on how to recycle aerosols.
Are there any states that require steel can recycling?
No. While 10 states (and Guam) have container deposit laws, these only cover beverage packaging, so steel cans are excluded.
- How to Recycle a Metal Water Bottle: If you switched to a metal bottle and are looking to recycle it, we’ve got you covered
- Steel These Ideas: 15 Repurpose Projects Using Food Cans: Why recycle your steel cans at all when there are so many ways to reuse them around the house?
- The Basics of Recycling Scrap Metal for Money: Steel cans are one of many products that you can recycle for money, and this guide covers how to get started