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Q&A: Happy Can-niversary, The Evolution Of The Can

Cans first landed on the scene in 1810, and the food industry has never been the same. Food and beverage cans have come a long way—from the first handmade iron cans to the fully recyclable aluminum and steel cans of today. This year marks the 200th birthday of the food can and the 75th of the beverage can, so Food Manufacturing spoke with Robert Budway, President of the Can Manufacturing Institute, to celebrate the can-niversary.


Cans first landed on the scene in 1810, and the food industry has never been the same. Food and beverage cans have come a long way—from the first handmade iron cans to the fully recyclable aluminum and steel cans of today. This year marks the 200th birthday of the food can and the 75th of the beverage can, so Food Manufacturing spoke with Robert Budway, President of the Can Manufacturing Institute, to celebrate the can-niversary.

Q: What were the first food and beverage cans like?

A: The earliest food cans were made by hand in 1810 when artisans pounded iron into sheets and then dipped the sheets into molten tin. The sheets were cut into pieces— rectangles for the body of the can and round ends—then the pieces were bent around a cylindrical mold and the seams and ends were soldered in place. There was a circular hole in one end where the food would be inserted and then the hole was plugged with a soldered metal cap. The process was so time consuming, the most skilled can-makers were only able to produce about 10 cans per day.

The first beverage can was sold 75 years ago on Jan. 24, 1935, in Richmond, Va. Kreuger Beer was the brewer, and the can was a steel flat or punch top can that required a can opener. Cliquot Club ginger ale was the first carbonated beverage can introduced into the market in 1938 and came in a cone-top can. A flat-top can, coined the “picnic can,” was available in 1955 and sold in six-can cartons that retailed for 79 cents.

The use of cans for carbonated beverages was delayed until 1953, because of wartime material limitations mandated by the U.S. government. When the restriction was lifted after the Korean War, the improved can was introduced and marketed nationwide. Dr. Pepper introduced cans into a few select cities in 1955, and their president announced that the beverage can was "the most significant packaging development in our history."

In 1958, the first aluminum beer can was sold, and on Jan. 22, 1959, the first all-aluminum, two-piece, 7-ounce beverage can rolled out in Golden, Colorado—containing original Coors beer.

The first aluminum soft drink beverage can was manufactured by Reynolds Metals Company in 1963. Royal Crown adopted the aluminum can in 1964, and by 1967, Pepsi and Coke followed. The aluminum can was made with only two pieces—a body and an end—and introduced 360-degree printing on the can itself as a new marketing tool. Cans were also sold by the multi-pack—12 cans packaged together in paperboard box, which provided additional space for advertising/marketing.

Q: How have food and beverage cans changed throughout the years?

A: Can manufacturing has evolved over the years. Today, can production has been simplified, and at the same time, the end product has become more sterile and sanitary. Today, can lines are able to produce 2,500 to 3,750 can bodies per minute, much more than the original 10 cans per day.
Other important dates in can history:

  • 1960: The easy-opening can was introduced.
  • 1962: Cans with ring-pull lids were test-marketed by Iron City Beer, Pittsburgh Brewery Company.
  • 1963: Ernie Fraze of Dayton Reliable Tool Company and Alcoa invented the aluminum easy-open end. This development had a dramatic effect on the growth of sales of cans as containers for beer and carbonated soft drinks because it brought a new level of convenience to the consumer.
  • 1974: Stay-on tabs were introduced by Falls City Beer.

Today, consumers can find cans that are self-cooling, self-heating and microwavable, and many food cans have easy-open lids, so can openers aren’t needed. Today’s cans are self-marketing tools. Logos and messaging are located directly on the can itself or on the 12- or 24-pack box in which they are packaged. And of course, can manufacturing and recycling is by far the best example of an industry that has turned green. While it was once a necessity to mine for virgin ore to create cans, cans today are 100 percent recyclable. In fact, if all the cans produced were recycled, there might not ever be a need to mine for aluminum or steel for can production ever again.

Q: How has the can changed the way food is manufactured and packaged, and how does this benefit the industry?

A: The growing demand for canned food across the country, helped along by times of war along with technology that pushed can making into the automated realm, has led to a job demand within the can-making, food production and packaging industries. Fruit and vegetable processing plants sprang up all over the country. The number of processing plants grew from less than 100 in 1870 to nearly 1,800 at the turn of the century. According to USDA in 2005, there were almost 31,000 food and beverage processing establishments in the U.S. Today, the canned food industry employs more than 84,000 people in the U.S.

Recycling has really influenced can manufacturing in a positive way:

  • Making new aluminum cans from used cans takes 95 percent less energy than using virgin materials. Twenty recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce one can using virgin ore.
  • It only takes 60 days for a used aluminum can to be recycled and back on the grocery store shelf.
  • Steel food cans are 100 percent recyclable and contain a minimum of 25 percent recycled content.
  • Only the North American steel industry has reduced energy demands while still increasing production.
  • For every ton of steel recycled, 4,697 kWh of energy is conserved. Every pound of steel cans recycled conserves enough energy to light a 60-watt bulb
    for 26 hours.

There are currently more than 600 sizes and styles of cans being manufactured. There are also more than 1,500 varieties of food available in cans, and in our fast-paced lives, we depend on cans for their ease and convenience more than ever. Statisticians have estimated that American families spent less than one-seventh the time preparing meals in the 90s as they did just two decades ago. And health-conscious shoppers have come to rely on the fresh, preservative-free and sodium-free foods they find in cans.

Americans more often purchase their beer and soft drinks in cans than any other package. They prefer cans because they are lightweight, transportable, unbreakable, have superior shelf-life and keep their beverages colder. And the can is still the only beverage package that stacks for easy storage in the refrigerator, cooler or pantry.

Do you see today’s environmental and health concerns, such as recycling and BPA, affecting the can at all?

Even though the FDA has said that BPA is safe, CMI is aware of the changes in the marketplace, and the industry is working on alternatives to meet those market demands.
As sustainability becomes more of an issue in the marketplace, the can is perfectly positioned as the most recycled food and beverage container. Recycling rates for aluminum beverage and steel food cans are 57.4 percent and 65 percent, respectively.

Q: What is the future of the can?

A: In terms of manufacturing and technology, we’re already seeing the future of the can! Soft drink producers and brewers are expressing unique images for their products with high-profile aluminum beverage cans in all shapes and sizes imaginable, with multicolor graphic capabilities, embossing and even tactile finishes. Today, when you buy a canned product, more than likely its packaging will have been tailored especially for the ultimate enjoyment of that product. For example, cans of Guinness contain a mechanism that releases carbon dioxide through the beer and creates a thick, creamy head as authentic as a slow pour from the tap in an Irish pub.

The food can is not to be outdone in the search for revolutionary packaging. New easy-open ends put convenience literally at your fingertips; smoother edges are child and family friendly; white can linings are a bright new addition, reassuring consumers that canned foods are fresh and wholesome; and shapes abound on the canned food aisle as well. The possibilities are endless!

Interview By Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor

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