Are Tin Cans Eco-Friendly?

When most people think of recyclable aluminium, they picture a soda or beer can. It’s true that these are readily recognisable as aluminium products. However, there are some things you may not know about cans and their eco-friendliness. In recent years, many environmentally conscious consumers have expressed concerns about the environmental impact of cans.

Let’s take a closer look at how just how eco-friendly tin cans are.

What are Tin Cans Made From?

In the UK, cans are predominantly made from either aluminium or steel and then coated in a thin layer of tin. So actually, cans contain very little tin! Before aluminium was invented in the 20th century, tin was commonly used for containing food and drinks, hence why some people colloquially still call cans a “tinnie” or aluminium foil “tin foil”.

So How Eco-Friendly Are Cans, Really?

To begin with, we should examine why this is even a question. One reason is that cans require more energy than bottles to produce and recycle; another is because it takes more trees to make the sleeves that protect the ends of the can from being torn or broken in handling. Because of these factors, some people have written off cans as not being eco-friendly at all. In reality, though, this isn’t fair or accurate.

In terms of their reusability, cans are eco-friendly. Compared to glass bottles cans require more energy to make, but they are far easier and use less energy to recycle. Euronews also reports that dumping a tonne of glass compared to cans in landfills would use up five times as much space.

The average can also weighs much more than a bottle, which means less-efficient transportation, and as a result, larger amounts of carbon emissions.

Are Tin Cans Biodegradable?

No, tin cans are not biodegradable. The tin that forms the outer coating of a can will not break down or decompose. In fact, this outer layer of the can acts as a protective coating against corrosion.

Tin cans will take between 50-100 years to decompose.

What Can Be Recycled From Cans?

The inside and outside of a canned beverage can be recycled. It’s useful to also check if you need to remove the labels from canned beverages before putting the can in a recycling bin. The aluminium in the can itself can be recycled repeatedly, meaning the metal can be repeatedly melted down and reused for another can.

In fact, about 75% of all the aluminium ever made is still being used thanks to recycling!

Is Tin Currently an Environmental Problem?

While tin is technically considered a “common” metal instead of a precious metal like gold, tin is still rare in comparison to steel. It may be the least available of all common metals. This means that making anything out of pure tin — especially common objects —would be difficult and very expensive.

Tin is also mined in areas where there are concerns about environmental pollution. It is reported that 90% of tin is mined in countries that have environmental and social risks, such as China, Indonesia and Myanmar.

On top of that, researchers are already pinpointing dates when tin mines will run dry. So yes, mining new tin is an environmental issue.

Are There Better Alternatives to Tin Cans?

The two common alternatives to tin cans are glass and plastic, and both of which have cause for concern for consumers, particularly plastic! Currently, cans are the most eco-friendly compared to glass and plastic containers. Most companies favour cans over glass simply because it is more efficient to distribute. As of now, there is no alternative to the tin can.

Omar Agor-Wood
Omar Agor-Wood

Omar is a digital marketer by day for one of the UK's largest environmental consultancy companies, and is writing like the world depends on it for Pick Ethical at night. He has a passion for hiking, bouldering, and making a fuss of his dog.

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