The modern aluminum beverage can traces its origins to 1959, when Coors introduced the first all-aluminum, seamless two-piece beverage container. In addition to providing a superior taste to the steel and tin cans then in vogue, the new package was recyclable: Coors would pay one cent for each can returned to the brewery.
The era of sustainable packaging had begun.
According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, this first generation of aluminum cans weighed approximately three ounces per unit. In the half century since, aluminum beverage can manufacturers have lightened the package ever further—reducing the gauge required to fabricate both the cans and the ends. Today’s cans weigh less than a half-ounce.
Aluminum Cans Enter the Soft Drink Market
A range of other factors contributed to the aluminum can’s early adoption by beverage manufacturers: it was easily molded (and hence its ability to be formed in only two pieces), it was highly resistant to corrosion and would not rust, and it admirably supported the carbonation pressure required to package soda (aluminum cans withstand pressure of up to 90 lbs. per square inch).
Such advantages were not lost on Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola who, in 1967, adopted the aluminum can for Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi. The aluminum can revolution was under way—but its biggest boost had yet to come.
Aluminum Can Recycling
This recycling infrastructure paid dividends in numerous ways. It helped the aluminum industry by providing a ready source of high-grade aluminum that reduces the need to produce primary aluminum from bauxite. It helps lower the cost to produce aluminum—as well as the emissions associated with its production—as recycling aluminum requires only 5 percent of the energy required to make aluminum from ore. And, not the least, it has helped pay aluminum canned beverage consumers billions of dollars over the past three and a half decades.
All of these factors encouraged the aluminum can’s acceptance as the beverage container of choice for an audience with an emerging environmental consciousness. By 1985, the aluminum beverage can had attained preeminence over all other beverage container packages in the marketplace. By 2010, the aluminum can recycling rate was 58.1 percent and a life-cycle analysis determined that the recycled content of the typical aluminum can in North America had reached 68 percent.
As noted, the first two-piece aluminum cans weighed three ounces. Today, as a result of advances in manufacturing technology that allow for thinner aluminum cans to be produced than ever before, aluminum cans weigh only slightly more than a half ounce apiece. In 1972, as the can recycling program was being launched, a pound of aluminum yielded 21.75 cans. Today, as a result of canmakers’ use of less metal per unit, one pound of aluminum can produce 33 cans.
Similarly, can ends have also been lightened. A pound of aluminum used to make 123 can ends; now it can be used to fabricate 165 ends. C a n m a k e r s achieved this by continually reducing the diameter of the ends they produced— from 2 and 11/16 inches (“211”) in the 1970s down to the current 2 and 1/8 inches (“202”).
The first aluminum cans—like their steel counterparts—required what was known as a “church key” for opening the end of the can prior to consumption. Essentially a can opener, the church key worked fine—unless you’d forgotten to bring it with you.
As legend has it, the inventor of the pulltab, one Ermal Cleon Fraze, found himself in precisely that situation while on a family picnic. Without his church key opener handy, Fraze resorted to piercing his beer can open on the fender of a car—in the process losing much of his can’s contents.
Fraze, who owned the Dayton Reliable Tool Company, thus set about devising what would become the pulltab—which comprised a tab attached at the rivet that, when pulled, would come completely off the can. In 1962, he sold the idea to Alcoa, which worked with the Pittsburgh Brewing Company to introduce it on its Iron City beer cans. Iron City would be the first to feature the design (also known as the “zip top” and the “snap top”).
While a definite improvement over the church key—particularly from the standpoint of convenience—the pulltab still had some drawbacks. Improperly discarded pulltabs became something of a litter issue. Occasionally, if they were dropped into the container before drinking, they could be swallowed by the consumer.
In 1975, Daniel Cudzik of Reynolds Metals invented the “stay tab.” The predominant can-opening mechanism ever since, the stay tab opens the can end by pulling a tab that pushes a scored region into the can. As both the tab and the scored region stay attached to the can, there is no litter. For this reason, the stay tab has sometimes been called the “ecology top.”
In any case, since its introduction over 30 years ago, the stay tab’s convenience has earned it the loyalty of generations of drinkers for its convenience and consistent performance. Other more recent improvements to aluminum can technology include:
•The vented wide mouth can, the goal of which is to improve the
flow of fluid from the can opening; and
Launched in 2000 by the Daiwa Can Company, the bottle can initially became a huge success in Japan. Mimicking the look of a bottle—but with the chilling, fizz-retention, and display/branding opportunities of aluminum— the bottle can allows on-the go consumers (in a car, perhaps), or those who simply can’t finish their entire beverage in one sitting, to reseal their drink to prevent it from spilling and help it retain its freshness.
Since that time, a number of beverage companies have opted for variations on this package, including Capri Sun’s Island Refreshers, Bright Brothers wine and, more recently, limited-run series of Coke, Diet Coke, and Coke Zero.
Other cans that offer resealability include Rexam’s CapCan—currently utilized by Jolt Cola, Monster Energy, and Aqua Planet vitamin enhanced water, among others—and Ball’s Resealable End, which is being used to package Burn Energy.
Key Events in Can History