Course:HIST106/Aluminum Can : Yourstuff 2

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Life Cycle of the Aluminum Can
Enviromental History 106
Section: Distance
Instructor: Eagle Glassheim
Office Hours:
Class Schedule:
Important Course Pages
Lecture Notes
Course Discussion

Production History

The first aluminum can containing a drink beverage was available for purchase in 1958. It was produced by the Adolph Coors Company in Golden, Colorado and was used for package beer (similar to the Coors we drink today). At this stage in the aluminum cans history the average can could hold only 7 ounces of product. At first, the manufacturing process was inadequate for mass production due to constant ‘tooling problems’ that hindered production speed. However, demand for the lightweight packaging was growing rapidly and better production methods were right around the corner. In 1963 the first commercial 12-ounce aluminum can was fabricated and produced by Reynolds Metals. And by 1967 Coca-Cola and Pepsi were also using aluminum cans (Hosford et al., 1994)[1].


The two-piece drawing and wall ironing method was the process first initiated by Reynolds Metals. This method is still utilized today and the main steps are as follows:

Step 1 – Blank and Draw from Sheet - Cutting circular blanks, 5.5 inches in diameter, from aluminum sheets (waste from this step is recycled into making new aluminum sheets)

Step 2, 3, and 4 – Redraw, Iron, and Dome - Forming operations for the can body is done in one continuous punch stroke by a single machine in about one fifth of a second. This step uses the circular 5.5-inch piece of aluminum and forms and stretches it to produce the can body and base.

Step 5 – Trim Ears – After the body is formed it emerges from the machine with the top edge of the can exhibiting a wavy or ‘eared’ effect. To ensure a flat top, about a quarter inch of the body is removed.

Step 6, 7, and 8 – Cleaning, Printing, Necking – After trimming the can body goes through a number of high-speed operations. First cleaning and lacquering, then printing (decorative stage with company logo etc.), and finally necking, which accommodates the smaller lid.

Step 9 – Flange – the top of the body is ‘flanged’ to secure the lid.

Step 10 – Fill and Seem – the can is then filled with the product (beer, soft drinks etc) and seemed shut. Ready for sale.[2]

To supplement this step by step production process, here is a visual of what the can looks like at the end of each stage (Images from Horsford et al., 1994).

Steps 1-6:

Steps 7-10:

Or an even better way to follow the production process of the aluminum can is through video:

Local, regional, and global pathways

Each year more than 280 billion aluminium cans are manufactured worldwide[3]. Locally, here in Vancouver, there is no information available on the production of aluminium cans. Its apparent that Vancouver does not play any role in the production of aluminium cans. We do however pride ourselves in recycling these cans.

Regionally, in North America, millions of aluminium cans are produced everyday. Novelis, a US company, is the leading global supplier of aluminium sheets used for producing beverage cans. They also recycle more than 40 billion used aluminium cans each year. They have produced a figure showing how the 60 day process “Can-to-Can” which highlights the major stages in the aluminium cans life cycle:


How many aluminum cans have you gone through this last month? What about this past year? I would not be able to even count my own numbers because it would probably be so high. Now multiply that by everyone in the world and you have a huge number. Some studies suggest that on average that a single person living in North American will consume over 300 aluminum can based beverages per year. Since the 1970’s there has been over 60 million tons of aluminum cans made. Beverages are not only thing that came in aluminum cans, there are meats like SPAM and vegetable to name a few. Before aluminum cans we had tin cans which you had to open with a chisel and hammer. With the invention of aluminum can you also had the invention of the ease of use pull top openings. There have been many variations of the pull top openings since aluminum cans were invented in the 1960s. What this did was provide a easier and more convenient way to store food and beverages. At this time in human history we were going through a convenience explosion and aluminum cans played right into that. The great thing about aluminum cans is that they can be recycled and that aluminum can actually be recycled over and over again without losing any essential properties. So if we all recycle our cans we can at least offset some of the harm we cause to the environment in the use of them.

Material Culture

We live in society of immediate consumption and immediate disposal. When I think about the aluminum can and mass consumerism I think of Andy Warhol and his works like the Campbell’s soup can.He was exploring ideas surrounding our mass market consumerism and our ability to make create and then discard objects. What he was commenting on at that point in history is still very relevant today. The aluminum can is very representative of who we are as a society, a throw way society, if archaeologists in the future were to find only a few objects in which to learn about us and one was an aluminum can I can only assume they would have the same conclusions.

An interesting thing I think about aluminum cans is that they have created this almost subculture of people we refer to as “biners”, people who make their livelihood off of recycling cans. You can see them in any major city walking around with gigantic bags filled with cans. I did my own experiment this year with aluminum cans and recycling. In September I noticed that my household was constantly throwing cans into the blue bin without thinking about it. So I decided to save them and take them to the bottle depot instead and see just how much money I was throwing away. It turns a lot because I was able to buy all my Christmas presents with the money I saved.

Disposal When a used aluminum can has been emptied of its beverage it can either be recycled or thrown in the garbage. If the can is thrown out, it is a tremendous waste of energy, as the aluminum is no longer involved in the constant phase of recycling. Aluminum is a durable and sustainable metal and because of this, two-thirds of the aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Luckily, more than 63% of the aluminum cans produced are recycled.[4] Even when you take into consideration the cost of collection, separation and recycling, it is still more economical than producing new aluminum. It is even possible for a used aluminum can to be recycled and returned onto the shelf as a new can within 60 days.

For the recycling process, it begins when consumers bring their used cans into local recycling centers, community drop-off sites, charity collection sites, or curbside pick-up spots. The cans are separated from other recyclable items and then compressed into 30 pound briquettes or 1,200 pound bales which are then shipped to and melted by aluminum companies.[5] At these aluminum companies, the condensed cans are shredded, crushed and stripped of their inside and outside decorations through a burning process. Unlike plastic bottles that need to be cleaned before recycling, the heat used in the aluminum melting process eliminates any contaminants.[6] The small aluminum pieces are loaded into melting furnaces, where the recycled metal is blended with newly produced aluminum. The molten aluminum is then poured into 25 foot long ingots which are fed into rolling mills that reduce the thickness of the metal from 20 inches to sheets one-hundredth of an inch thick. This metal is then coiled and shipped to can makers, who produce the can bodies and lids. They then deliver these cans to beverage companies for filling. [7]

Energy History Efficiency of production aluminum cans is greatly improving. For example, in 1972, 1 pound of aluminum cans was equivalent to about 22 empty cans. Due to the advance in technology of using less material and increasing the durability of aluminum cans, as of 2002, 1 pound of aluminum cans is equivalent to about 34 empty cans. [8] In terms of the energy required to make a can and then recycle it, twenty recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce one can using virgin ore. [9] Luckily, today it is cheaper, faster and more energy-efficient to recycle aluminum than ever before. The aluminum can is 100% recyclable and can be recycled indefinitely. The can is the most recyclable of all materials.[10] The most energy efficient aspect pertaining to the recycling of an aluminum can is that recycling aluminium uses about 5% of the energy required to create aluminium from bauxite, because new aluminum requires a lot of electrical energy and water for extraction. Additionally, recycled aluminium saves 95% of the green house gas emission that results from primary aluminum production.