Are Those Empty Cat Food Cans Destined for the Trash? The Answer May Surprise You

Cat food cans, both aluminum and steel, are widely recyclable. However, despite the recyclability, recycling rates for pet food cans are quite low, with estimates of less than 20% for aluminum and 25% for steel cans. There are several factors that contribute to the low recycling rates, including confusion about whether pet food cans can go in curbside recycling, lack of widespread access to can deposit redemption programs, and consumer behavior regarding can recycling. Nonetheless, recycling aluminum and steel cat food cans provides numerous environmental and economic benefits. This article provides an overview of the recyclability of different types of cat food cans and the options for consumers to recycle them.

Types of Cat Food Cans

Cat food cans are commonly made from two different materials – aluminum and steel. The majority of cat food cans, around 75%, are made from aluminum. Aluminum cans are lightweight, corrosion resistant, and strong which makes them well suited for packaging pet food. They are better at keeping out oxygen and preventing food from spoiling compared to steel cans. Major cat food brands like Fancy Feast and Iams use aluminum cans for their wet cat food products.

Aluminum cans have a shiny silver appearance and are softer than steel cans. They can be identified by the edges which are crimped together rather than welded. Recycling marks are also often printed on aluminum cans. The aluminum used in cat food cans is alloyed with small amounts of other metals like magnesium and manganese for added strength. The walls of aluminum cans are thinner than steel cans since aluminum is a lighter weight metal.

aluminum cat food cans are lightweight, shiny and crimped

According to the Aluminum Association, around 75 billion aluminum beverage cans are produced in the United States each year. While aluminum cat food cans make up a much smaller segment of the market, they contribute significantly to the amount of aluminum packaging waste generated. With proper recycling, aluminum cat food cans can be repeatedly reprocessed into new cans or other aluminum products without any loss of quality.

Recycling Aluminum Cat Food Cans

Aluminum cat food cans are highly recyclable. In fact, aluminum is one of the most recyclable materials on the planet. According to the EPA, in 2018 landfills received approximately 2.7 million tons of aluminum, which was only 1.8% of total municipal solid waste landfilled that year [1]. This shows that the vast majority of aluminum is recycled rather than thrown away.

Currently, about 65% of aluminum used in the United States is recycled [2]. However, the recycling rate for aluminum cans specifically has fallen below 50% in recent years. Experts estimate that increasing the aluminum can recycling rate could generate over $800 million in value annually [3]. Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to recycling aluminum cat food cans and beverage cans.

The good news is that aluminum cans can be recycled over and over infinitely without any loss in quality. Recycling aluminum requires only 5% of the energy needed to produce new aluminum from bauxite ore. This makes aluminum recycling very energy efficient and sustainable.

Steel Cat Food Cans

Many cat food cans are made from steel. According to the Pet Food Institute, approximately 25% of pet food cans used in the United States are steel, while 75% are aluminum [1]. Steel cans are often used for wet dog food, while aluminum cans are more commonly used for cat food.

Steel cans are durable, strong, and provide excellent barrier properties to protect the integrity and shelf life of pet food. However, steel cans are heavier than aluminum and require protective coatings on the interior to prevent corrosion. The steel used in modern two-piece cans is typically tin-free steel coated with a thin layer of chromium and nickel to prevent rusting and maintain food safety.

While not as widely recyclable as aluminum, steel pet food cans can be recycled in many municipal recycling programs. However, it’s important to note that steel cans require separation from aluminum cans prior to recycling. We’ll discuss the recycling of steel pet food cans more in the following sections.

steel pet food cans require separation before recycling

Recycling Steel Cat Food Cans

Steel is one of the most recycled materials in the world. According to the Steel Recycling Institute, steel cans have an overall recycling rate of 73% in the United States [1]. However, recycling steel cat food cans can be more difficult than other steel items. This is because the cans are often coated with a plastic liner on the inside to protect the food. The plastic liner can contaminate recycling facilities’ equipment if not properly removed [2].

To prepare steel cat food cans for recycling, it’s important to completely empty and rinse out the inside of the can. Any remaining food or residue could ruin an entire batch of recycled steel. You may need to use a knife or other tool to fully scrape and remove the inside coating. It takes a bit more effort than tossing aluminum cans directly into the recycling bin, but properly cleaning steel cat food cans ensures that this highly recyclable material can be turned into new steel products.

Recycling Programs

Many curbside recycling programs accept aluminum and steel cat food cans along with regular cans. Check with your local waste management provider to confirm their policies. Some programs require cans to be rinsed before placing in the recycling bin.

If curbside pickup is not available in your area, there are often drop-off locations to recycle cat food cans. Facilities like recycling centers, scrap yards, or metal recycling companies accept steel and aluminum cans. For example, companies like Alcoa provide drop off locations throughout the country to recycle aluminum (

Some pet food brands have partnered with recycling organizations like TerraCycle to offer free programs to mail in pet food packaging for recycling. These programs accept flexible pouches, plastic tubs, and steel cans from specific pet food brands.

Preparing Cans for Recycling

Before cat food cans can be placed in recycling bins, it is important to properly prepare them. The two key steps are cleaning the cans thoroughly and removing any labels.

rinsing and removing labels to prepare cat food cans for recycling

Empty cat food cans should first be rinsed out with water to remove any remaining food or residue. It is best to rinse immediately after use, as dried on food and grease can be more difficult to remove later. The cans should be rinsed until all traces of food are gone.

Next, any paper labels should be removed from the cans. The glue from paper labels can contaminate recyclable materials. It is best to completely remove the label and glue residue. This may require soaking the can in warm water and then scrubbing off the label and any remaining glue.

Once the can is clean and label-free, it can be placed in curbside recycling bins. Following proper preparation steps ensures cat food cans will be accepted for recycling rather than rejected as contamination. With some simple rinsing and label removal, old cat food cans can be successfully recycled.

Benefits of Recycling Cat Food Cans

Recycling cat food cans provides important environmental benefits. Aluminum and steel production require significant energy use and raw material extraction. Recycling reduces the need for these extraction and production processes. According to the Aluminum Association, recycling aluminum saves more than 90% of the energy required to produce new aluminum from raw materials (source).

The Steel Recycling Institute states that recycling steel saves 70% of the energy used to produce new steel from iron ore. Beyond energy savings, recycling also reduces air and water pollution associated with primary metal production. Keeping recyclable cans out of landfills further limits negative environmental impacts. Overall, recycling cat food cans provides meaningful sustainability benefits by reducing resource use, energy consumption, and waste.

Challenges and Limitations

There are some challenges and limitations when it comes to recycling cat food cans that prevent higher recycling rates. One major issue is contamination. Cat food cans can contain food residue even after they have been emptied. This food residue can contaminate other recyclables if the cans aren’t properly cleaned before recycling. According to one source, “If the cans contain food waste, they can jam up machinery at recycling facilities.”[1] Proper rinsing is required before tossing cat food cans into recycling bins.

challenges and limitations of recycling cat food cans

Another limitation is the need for sorting at recycling facilities. Aluminum and steel cans must be separated before they can be recycled. If a facility doesn’t have the capacity to sort cans, they may end up in landfills instead. As one article explains, “The need for sortation prior to remelting aluminum or steel is another barrier.”[2]

Finally, costs can be a barrier to recycling cat food cans. Collecting, transporting and processing these small, lightweight cans can be expensive compared to their scrap value. Some cities find it difficult to justify recycling programs for cat food cans due to tight municipal budgets and low market values for scrap metal.

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In summary, most cat food cans, whether aluminum or steel, are fully recyclable. Recycling these cans keeps them out of landfills and reduces the need for mining new materials. Preparing cans properly by rinsing and removing labels enables efficient reprocessing. While recycling programs vary by location, more communities are expanding options for metal can recycling. With some effort to clean and collect cans, cat owners can make a positive environmental impact through recycling. Though recycling alone is not a complete solution, it remains an important strategy for reducing waste. With more public participation, recycling cat food cans and other metal products can help move society closer to a circular economy.

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