The Secret Truth Behind Unrecyclable Cat Food Cans


Recycling cat food cans is an issue because they often end up in landfills rather than being recycled. This seems counterintuitive since aluminum cans are widely recycled. Yet cat food cans face unique challenges that make them difficult to recycle compared to aluminum beverage cans. Understanding why cat food cans get discarded can help find solutions to improve their recycling rates.

People often wonder why they can’t put cat food cans in with their regular aluminum can recycling. Despite being made of aluminum, cat food cans have properties that cause problems at recycling facilities. This leads to many municipalities excluding them from their recycling programs. Examining the differences between beverage cans and cat food cans reveals the reasons for this recycling gap.

Aluminum vs Steel Cans

Cat food cans are usually made of steel, while many other food cans like soda and vegetable cans are made of aluminum. Aluminum is more valuable and easier to recycle than steel. According to Food Engineering Magazine, recycling aluminum requires less energy and time compared to steel. The process of extracting aluminum from bauxite ore is very energy-intensive, so recycling existing aluminum saves about 90% of that energy. Steel production is also energy intensive, but not to the same degree as aluminum. Recycled aluminum can be back on store shelves in just 60 days compared to steel which takes about 74 days.

Additionally, aluminum has a higher scrap value per pound compared to steel. According to RecycleNation, the current scrap price of aluminum cans is around $1.20/lb versus just $0.05/lb for steel cans. This makes aluminum more lucrative to collect and recycle. Since cat food cans are made of steel rather than aluminum, they are less valuable and have a lower recycling rate as a result.

Tin Coating

Cat food cans have a thin coating of tin applied to the steel through a process called tinplating or electroplating [1]. This tin coating serves to protect the steel from corrosion and prevent the food contents from interacting with the metal [2]. While tin can effectively prevent rust, it also contaminates the steel and makes the cans more difficult to recycle.

When the used tin-coated steel cans enter a recycling facility, the tin contamination has to be removed so the steel can be repurposed. Special processing is required to separate the tin from the steel through methods like leaching and electrolysis [2]. The tiny trace amounts of tin end up in waste streams during recycling. Ultimately, the tin coating causes an extra step for recyclers that plain steel cans do not require.


Shape and Size

Cat food cans tend to be smaller in size compared to typical food cans. Many cat food cans contain around 3-5 ounces of food, whereas regular canned foods for humans often contain 12-15 ounces. Their diminutive size makes them difficult for the machinery at recycling facilities to properly sort and process.

Most recycling equipment is designed to handle standard 12 ounce aluminum cans or larger steel tin cans. The small cans slide through gaps in conveyor belts and sorting devices meant for larger containers. This can lead to contamination if small cat food cans end up mixed in with other materials.

Additionally, cat food cans have a slightly rounded shape compared to the nearly flat ends of soda or soup cans. Their curved profile makes them prone to rolling off conveyor belts during the sorting process. The irregular shape also prevents them from neatly stacking, which is necessary for efficient recycling.

According to research from NPR, plastics and metals smaller than 3 inches often jam machinery at recycling plants and must be discarded as waste. The unique size and shape of cat food cans unfortunately places them right in this problem category for recyclers.

Low Economic Value

Most cat food cans are made from steel, which generally has a lower scrap value compared to other metals like copper or aluminum. According to iScrapApp, steel scrap prices currently range from $185-250 per ton. This is significantly lower than copper scrap which can fetch over $3000 per ton.

The low scrap value of steel cat food cans makes it not worth the effort for many recycling facilities to collect and process them. Facilities must sort, clean, compact, and find buyers for the scrap steel – all costs that can exceed the minimal revenue from the steel itself. For this reason, many recycling programs leave steel cat food cans out of their accepted materials.

The small size and light weight of cat food cans also reduces their scrap value. Larger heavier steel items like appliances or cars contain more raw material and are more economical to process. With cat food cans, facilities must handle high volumes to make collection viable. For many programs, other steel items are more lucrative to target.


One of the main reasons cat food cans cannot be readily recycled is due to contamination from food residue. As explained by Rubicon, “Recycling contamination occurs when materials are sorted into the wrong recycling bin.”1 Cat food cans can be considered a contaminant if they still contain wet cat food residue. This food residue can contaminate an entire batch of cans during the recycling process.

Having to clean each can to remove residue increases processing costs dramatically. As Roadrunner Waste Management notes, contamination like food residue on cans makes those items “difficult, or impossible, to process at a Materials Recovery Facility.”2 So recycling facilities may simply reject cat food cans as a problematic contaminant requiring too much additional cleaning.

Lack of Equipment

Many local recyclers lack the proper equipment needed to process steel cans efficiently. Recycling steel cans requires compacting equipment to flatten and densify the cans, as well as baling equipment to bundle them together. The cans also need to go through magnetic separation equipment to separate the steel from any aluminum or other contaminants. This specialized machinery can be expensive for local recyclers to invest in.

With inadequate equipment, it becomes challenging for recycling facilities to efficiently collect, process, and store steel cans. As a result, many find it easier and cheaper to send the steel cans directly to landfills rather than trying to recycle them. According to one source, “Many local recyclers lack equipment to process steel cans” ( Without the proper infrastructure for steel can recycling, the cans often end up in the trash rather than being properly recycled.

Consumer Behavior

Many consumers are simply unaware that cat food cans cannot be recycled through standard municipal recycling programs. According to a recent Purina survey, only 56% of cat owners recycle their cat food cans consistently, despite the cans being made of recyclable aluminum ( This indicates a lack of education among cat owners regarding proper disposal of used cat food cans.

Part of the problem may be that cat food cans look similar to tin cans, which are commonly accepted by recycling programs. However, the inside of cat food cans are coated with tin to prevent food contamination, while the outside is aluminum. This construction makes them difficult to recycle. More public education is needed to inform cat owners that used cat food cans require special handling and cannot go in curbside recycling bins. With increased awareness, consumers can properly dispose of used cat cans through alternate methods like taking them to specialty recyclers. Proper disposal reduces waste and environmental impact.


There are some alternatives emerging for more recyclable cat food packaging. Brands like Wellness® have partnered with TerraCycle to offer free recycling programs for their flexible plastic pet food pouches ( Consumers can collect and ship their empty pouches to TerraCycle, who will recycle them into new products. This provides a recycling solution for pet owners.

Some brands are also starting to use more recyclable materials in their packaging. For example, Open Farm uses recyclable cardboard for their bags that can be placed in curbside recycling. Choosing brands with recyclable packaging is one way pet owners can reduce waste (

In the future, more innovation around recyclable cat food cans and pouches could emerge. This may include wider adoption of recyclable cardboard, paper, or #1 PET plastic packaging. Consumers can help drive change by choosing brands that prioritize sustainability.


In summary, there are a few key factors that make cat food cans difficult to recycle compared to other types of aluminum cans. The small size and odd shape of cat food cans makes them challenging to sort in recycling facilities. The tin coating can contaminate other recyclables if not completely removed. Cat food residue inside the cans is also a contaminant. While aluminum is a valuable metal, the small amount of aluminum in each cat food can means they have low economic value for recyclers. Lastly, most municipal recycling programs are not equipped with the machinery to efficiently process large volumes of cat food cans.

While recycling cat food cans poses challenges, there are some solutions. Consumers can clean and dry cans before putting them in the recycling bin to reduce contamination. Manufacturers can streamline the shapes of cans to improve sortability. Recycling centers can invest in equipment specifically for processing small tin-coated aluminum cans. Consumers can also choose cat food brands packaged in recyclable containers like cardboard, aluminum pouches, or glass.

With some adjustments on the part of consumers, manufacturers, and recycling facilities, cat food cans could become more recyclable in the future. In the meantime, the key reasons they tend to get disposed rather than recycled have to do with their material composition, size, shape, economic value, and potential to contaminate other recyclables.

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