Along with its mascot Al the Can (who already has some 17,793 pals on Facebook and whom you can also call your friend by clicking on the image of Al to the right), the Can Manufacturers Institute, the Washington-based trade association of the metal and composite can manufacturing industry in the U.S., celebrates the 75th anniversary of the beverage can and the 200th can-niversary of the food can.
After a call to action in 1795 from Napoleon, who offered 12,000 francs for a method to preserve food for his army and navy, the can was conceived, making its debut in 1810. To celebrate the can's milestone anniversaries, we spoke with Robert Budway, president of CMI, about innovations on the horizon and the economic and environmental impact of recycling, certainly timely in this age of sustainability. Each year, the aluminum industry pays out more than $800 million dollars for empty aluminum cans.
After all, what other invention has provided such a huge economic and cultural boom to the world -- particularly in America, where it has been a major economic force since 1818 when Peter Durand first introduced the tin-plated iron food container (he had invented the can eight years earlier in England). Not only have soldiers depended on canned food to survive in times of war, mom has depended on cans to provide fruits and vegetables off season, the cooking-impaired have relied on it to provide healthy, nutritious and delicious meals, and the can has been woven into our culture since childhood. Who can forget playing "kick the can" and "can telephone"?
"Cans are endlessly recyclable," says Budway, "and metal keeps light, which degrades beverages, out. When packaged in cans, the shelf-life is longer for soda and beer. Metal cans are tamper-resistant and tamper-evident, easy to transport, stack and store, and don't suffer the same package integrity issues that other packaging could experience during that process."
It occurred to me that I didn't know the different uses for steel or aluminum. "They are both great choices," explains Budway. "Steel is a better choice for food cans because the food and cans are heated and sterilized during the retort process after they are hermetically sealed. Steel is the best choice for high-temperature processes, whereas all standard-size, 12-oz. beer and beverage cans are aluminum." Both steel and aluminum have high recycling rates (65 percent for steel and 57.4 percent for aluminum), he adds.
Fresh is the consumer mantra today, so how do cans fit into that demand? "Unlike fresh fruits and vegetables, which are picked in season, stored, transported long distances, put on shelves and then purchased, canned food is in season all year round," he says. "Canned fruits and vegetables are picked at their peak of ripeness, are sterilized and quickly put in the can. In addition to the fact that you have that hermetically sealed walk-away, there have been studies by the Canned Food Alliance showing that canned corn, for example, is as fresh if not fresher than picked corn, which sits out longer and takes more time to get to the consumer. Steel cans maintain the nutrients in food longer. Meat products are also packed at their peak, are sterilized and hermetically sealed, so they have a longer shelf life, as well."
What about the advantages of canning vegetables versus freezing them? "Canned vegetables don't require refrigeration," he points out. "Canned vegetables are easily and safely transported from store to home, and don't require energy usage along the way – from refrigerated trucks carrying them to their destination, refrigerated cases in the store and refrigerators at home. It's a sustainability issue."
Cans do have exciting innovations. "Technologies are being developed for resealable cans," says Budway enthusiastically. "We are seeing smaller beverage sizes for portion control. There are different diameter sizes too, like the Red Bull can, which is very distinctive and good for the brand's image. There are also different can shapes, such as the Spam can, and square cans." Europeans tend to use more varieties than American manufacturers, and he points out there is one shaped like an 8-inch pie (it's a kidney and chicken pie). "You just pop it in the oven. Options are certainly available, and you only have to retool once."
Microwavable cans also are available, but, "We don't see much consumer use today," says Budway. "I don't know if it's the cost or it could be a consumer perception issue. One of the things our industry would like to see is more use of the whole panel, easy open end; that's where you pull the whole top off the can. It eliminates the use of the can opener making it more convenient for consumers. It's not cost prohibitive by any means."
And the industry excels in recycling. "We are a founding member of the Curbside Value Partnership, a program used by communities with existing curbside programs," says Budway. "It provides support to make them more efficient and collect more items, and encourages consumer awareness of recycling and using the bin more often. Even though half of American consumers have access to recycling bins, only half use them. We also conduct a contest for America Recycles Day, which is Nov. 15, and this year begins the Great American Can Roundup, encouraging school children to pick up cans for recycling."
There's no doubt this year is a great milestone for the can industry. "It's created good buzz, and reinforced the value of can as part of our heritage and history," says Budway proudly. "Cans have helped feed soldiers during wars, allowed families to have more fruits and vegetables wherever they live, and helped quickly provide food to people in countries during a catastrophe. There was a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about the products people stock up on in uncertain times or during weather emergencies, and many of them are canned foods made by companies such as Campbell Soup, Hormel and General Mills."