Friday, July 9, 2010

Your Recycling Program Forbids the Steel Lids?

Note: this is from an article I wrote a while back for the Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania for a segment they do on breaking recycling myths. I thought this might be of interest to other recycling coordinators as well. 
Your Recycling Program Forbids the Steel Lids?
They May Be Dealing With Information That Is On the Skids

This edition of Mythbusters will bring “closure” to concerns about recycling the steel can’s sidekick—steel lids. Is there a quid pro quo as far as steel lids go? Let’s take a look.

More than 95 percent of all canned foods are packaged in steel containers. This package includes the steel lids that are used to lock in the freshness of the can’s contents.

Each year nearly 30 billion steel cans are produced. And, in recent decades, the steel can has gone from being considered a recyclable reject to the most recycled food and beverage container in North America. Today, more than 145 million Americans can recycle their steel cans in more than 7,500 curbside recycling programs accepting steel cans.

This success has had some notable consequences—namely bringing more than 18 billion cans a year into recycling bins and giving steel cans the recycling rate of 65% for 2008. That’s a more than 430% increase in the steel can recycling rate since 1988!

But, for some, it seems a flap in this success story still lingers with questions of what to do with the steel lids that, well, are a part of the package.

With the high-tech equipment and handling of every type of recyclable that goes through the bins, careful considerations are made about anything that comes into the bin.

We’ve heard some rattling around about dated concerns about lids creeping their way into the bins. But, consensus seems to be that steel lids have been recycled along with their cans as long as cans have been in the bin. So, the myths about lids would seem to be BUSTED right out of the can.

But, given that the lids are a part of the package and this IS Mythbusters, we wanted to take a look at some of these concerns just to see if they have mettle.

M: Lids are small and inconsequential, are they worth recycling at all?
A: Each year, 2.3 million tons of steel go into making new steel cans and lids. The lids can represent up to 5% of the weight of the can. That 5% represents nearly 115,000 tons of steel that would simply be excluded. For every ton of steel recycled, more than 2500 pounds of iron ore, 1000 pounds of coal and 40 pounds of limestone are conserved. So, to blanket exclude steel lids and closures is to essentially consume an additional 115,000 tons of iron ore, 115,000,000 pounds of coal and 40,000 pounds of limestone. This is on top of the more than 29% energy savings that comes to the steelmaking process via recycling. A quick look at our scales and natural resources says the myth of recycling steel lids being inconsequential weighs in at BUSTED!

M: Lids have sharp edges and pose a risk to handlers
A: Steel lids have a good thing going for them. They’re made of steel. Thanks to their steel, they’re subject to magnetic attraction. So, while even in the most mixed of mixed waste facilities where some materials need to be identified and sorted by hands, magnets are still run over the belts which automatically separates steel cans of all sorts, as well as their steel lids. This means that any lids that may be loose in the bins often go untouched by human hands from collection to processing thanks to bins, belts and steel’s magnetic attraction. The facts seem to cut right through this myth, we declare it BUSTED!

M: The steel lids are small and loose and can get caught in equipment or belts.
A: Steel lids are undoubtedly small, as are the thin walls of their cans—especially when they’ve been flattened as they are in many commercial facilities. The fact is, as programs strive to capture every bit of recyclable material, all recyclables are getting smaller, and the equipment being used to sort and process these recyclables are sealed, protected and walled to prevent any wondering recyclables. As indicated in our test above, steel’s time on the sorting belts is very limited. Normally, right out of the chute, steel is pulled from the stream by magnets and is quickly condensed with other steel scrap on its way to be processed. We’ve heard the talk. We’ve looked into it. When it comes to the concern that size matters when it comes to processing, the lids have material over size. This myth is BUSTED!

The common theme with many of the myths concerning lids seems to be related to their size and mobility as they move through the recycling process. I spoke to Gregory L. Crawford, Vice President of Operations for the Steel Recycling Institute. Mr. Crawford says if you’re having trouble bringing closure to your concerns about lids, there are some steps you can take to minimize these concerns.

Try talking to the programs that are collecting steel cans. They often have open channels of communications with their customers on what they put into their bins. Ask them to encourage consumers that when cans are opened, to stop short of removing the lid--instead leaving a small part connected so the lid can be tucked back inside the can.  But on the chance that the lid is completely removed, it can be put back into the can and then the top of the can can be crushed by foot so the lid doesn't fall out.

In all, given the established success of recycling steel cans and their lids for more than 20 years, we consider these myths collectively BUSTED!

The Steel Recycling Institute (SRI), a unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute, is an industry association dedicated to communicating the sustainable efforts of the North American steel industry. The SRI educates the solid waste industry, government, business and ultimately the consumer about the benefits of steel’s recycling accomplishments and advancements in sustainability. For more information on the steel industry’s sustainable efforts visit: or

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