I’m excited to tell you all about the metal packaging challenge I just completed and how you can do it too in a way that leads to food pantry donations and a chance to win a prize. Here’s more on why I did it and what’s entailed.

Years ago, I was what I would call a wish-cycler. I would carry my blue bin out to the curb, proud of my overflowing recycling, under the impression that all the materials that I dutifully recycled would be carefully sorted through and go on to have new life. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It’s estimated that we use 380 million of tons of plastic every year and less than 10 percent of that is recycled. Cartons are a multi-layered box made up of three different materials, which makes recycling difficult and expensive. Glass is fragile, has a low economic value in the recycling system and is heavy, which increases carbon emissions during shipping. And, even though glass is infinitely recyclable, unfortunately only about one-third of it is recycled in the United States.

However, aluminum beverage cans and steel food cans have a very different recycling story. They have the highest U.S. recycling rate among all food and beverage containers. Virtually all U.S. recycling programs accept cans because they are easy to separate and recycle as well as one of the most valuable commodities in the recycling stream. 

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Metal cans are worth significantly more than other beverage containers.

Aluminum beverage cans are worth significantly more than other beverage containers. In fact, without the revenue from selling used beverage cans, most material recovery facilities, which do the important job of sorting single-stream recyclables, would not be able to operate! 

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Metal cans recycled in 2019 generated nearly $700 million.

Additionally, it only takes about 60 days for an aluminum beverage can to go from recycling bin back to store shelf as a new can – and get this, unlike other materials, the quality of aluminum and steel cans doesn’t degrade during the recycling process, which enables them to be recycled over and over again. This is how 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced and 75 percent of all steel ever produced, is still in circulation! 

Can recycling is a textbook example of a circular economy, which focuses on eliminating waste and keeping resources in circulation for as long as possible. This inspired me to challenge myself in a new way.

I have participated in Plastic Free July as well as zero waste challenges. I learned a lot from these experiences and still do my best: limiting plastic as much as possible, composting all organic materials, using my own bags and containers and buying in bulk. However, one of my biggest observations from these challenges was being zero-waste and leading a fast-paced modern lifestyle (let alone in the midst of a pandemic) is incredibly hard, time-consuming work that comes with enormous privilege. 

A Circular Sustainability Challenge

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Naked produce without packaging.

So, instead of going zero waste, I decided to challenge myself to a different way. I would do my best to swap items packaged in hard-to-recycle materials for those packaged in steel or aluminum, or those with no packaging at all – such as loose produce. 

I call it the #MetalCanChallenge

Day 1: Take Inventory, meal plan and shop.

Day 2-6: Engage in the challenge and strive to only use and consume items in metal or with no packaging.

Day 7: Tally the number of cans recycled and calculate the total impact of recycling those cans HERE

This challenge was incredibly enlightening for me.

I was able to explore new items that I wasn’t familiar with and came to enjoy some of them more than the non-aluminum and non-steel packaged counterparts that I chose previously. 

Obviously, cans are shelf-stable and easy to store, which is incredibly convenient. They make mealtime quick and easy with less clean-up, which is always appreciated – just open the lid and dump!

Cans are affordable and accessible. The convenience of canned food is not only a time-saver, but it can quite literally be a lifesaver in certain situations. 

As I completed this challenge, I also realized how aluminum cans preserve a beverage’s taste like no other container. They deliver a consistently fresh and satisfying flavor whenever you pop the top. They retain freshness and carbonation by protecting the product inside from air and sunlight – the two enemies of taste and freshness. Cans preserve distinct flavors and maintain product integrity while also being light, durable and keeping beverages colder, for longer. 

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Metsl cans preserve flavor, freshness and product integrity.

I was pleasantly surprised during and after this challenge because rather than feeling defeated, restricted and disappointed, as I did when doing zero-waste, I felt empowered, encouraged and eager to keep going. This challenge is not about perfection. It’s not about zero waste or exclusively using aluminum and steel. To me it was about understanding the role we play to enable a healthy recycling system, prioritizing and swapping for cans when we are able. 

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Aluminum beverage cans typically go from the recycling bin to store shelves in 60 days.

It was about recognizing that buying things because they are recyclable is not sufficient. We need to make purchases with the knowledge of what the material will be turned into, how many times it can be recycled, what its economic value is, etc. Cans score well on all those fronts including that the domestic infrastructure exists for cans to be turned into new cans at huge numbers—in the United States, more than 80,000 aluminum beverage cans and nearly 30,000 steel food cans are recycled every minute! Shifting our consumption to materials like aluminum and steel can have a profound impact and everyone can take part. It felt accessible, affordable and required less planning and driving to far destinations to access what I needed. I will definitely continue with this habit of looking for and prioritizing metal packaging.

Helpful Hints

I’ve listed a few things I learned throughout the challenge that may be helpful should you explore this challenge as well:

  1. Plan: prepare a list of meals and other items you need for the week and create a grocery list, taking inventory of what you already have and eliminating multiple trips to the store throughout the week.
  1. BYOB: bring your own bags – shopping bags, produce bags, and bulk containers. Be sure you know the tare weight by weighing empty, refillable containers on a scale so the weight can be deducted from the bulk items placed inside. 
  1. Consider Non-Food Related Items: Are there home or personal care products you can find in an aluminum or steel alternative? 
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I found this toothpaste in a recyclable metal tube.
  1. Hold onto your used cans: One of the coolest aspects of this challenge is the ability to calculate your environmental and economic impact from recycling aluminum beverage cans and steel food cans! Tally up how many cans and metal items you recycle and then enter the numbers in this calculator
Metal Can Challenge Success!
  1. Get Inspired: Below you will find some great meal ideas and recipe inspiration to spark your journey.

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Pineapple Green Smoothie

Baked Pear Oatmeal (I used canned pears)

Cinnamon Toast Chickpeas

Chickpea Bruschetta 

Potato Spinach Soup (I like to add a can of cannellini beans to the cashew cream)

Creamy Pumpkin Mac

Thai Cauliflower Curry

Pumpkin Chili 

One Pot Lemon Pasta

Buffalo Chili 

Curried Chickpea Salad

Chana Masala

Will you take the Metal Can Challenge?

I invite you to take the #MetalCanChallenge anytime from October 25th to November 12th 2021. Participants will be entered for a chance to win a stainless steel 16-Gal Multi Compartment Trash & Recycling Bin that is fingerprint-proof, stain-resistant and retailed at $298.99! 

The best part is everyone who enters will feel like a winner because for each can recycled by those taking the challenge, Can Manufacturers Institute will donate a canned food item to my local area food bank Philabundance. This organization does incredible work to feed hungry people in my community where the rate of food insecurity is nearly double the national percentage. Up to 50 cans per person will be donated. Be sure your Instagram account is public so we can see your impact!

​​To join the Metal Can Challenge, enter the giveaway and support a charitable donation, please follow the entry details below:

  1. Tag 3 friends in THIS POST who you think should take this challenge.
  2. Simply opt for items packaged in steel or aluminum cans, or those with no packaging at all. You can complete this challenge for any length of time from today 10/25/21 until 11/12/21. Be sure to hold onto your used cans!
  3. Tally and share the number of cans you used and will recycle and share in an Instagram post or reel using #MetalCanChallenge. 1 post = 1 entry. 

You are encouraged to document your journey and increase your odds of winning by posting more than once. Some ideas to inspire your #MetalCanChallenge post:

  • Share the challenge with your online community
  • Display your grocery haul
  • Take a photo of a recipe you made
  • Highlight a new metal packaged product you discovered
  • Snap a photo of the cans you used over the course of the week and will recycle
  • Use the impact calculator and proudly display your impact
  • Share some facts and images from cancentral.com to educate your community

This blog post and metal can challenge have been sponsored by the Can Manufacturers Institute.