For industry insiders who promote cans for food and beverages, sustainability has always been the name of the game.
"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 enduring."
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 packaging.
"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," Crawford said.
"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 expediency.
"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 table."
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 cafeterias.
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 Aluminum Association.
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."