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How to recycle all your metal cans: Do's and don'ts

All cans are recyclable, but you need to make sure you're recycling them correctly. Earth Day 2021 is the perfect time to learn how.

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Know what to do when recycling metal cans.

Alina Bradford/CNET
This story is part of Road Trip 2020, CNET's series on how we're preparing now for what could come next.

Earth Day is almost here. Now's the time to think of all the cans you go through weekly -- canned food, aerosol cans, soda cans. Fortunately, all metal cans -- including aluminum and steel -- are infinitely recyclable and, according to the American and Iron Steel Institute, more than 90% of the co-products from the steelmaking process are reused or recycled. That's the good news. But if you're not recycling the right way, you risk contaminating an entire batch of recyclable materials.

Since metals are nonrenewable natural resources (they can't be replaced as quickly as they're used), they're limited in supply, which is why it's important to recycle your cans. What's more, metals can be recycled over and over without the material losing quality.

Here's how to recycle your metal cans, and what not to do. But first, it's worth contacting your local recycling center to learn the best procedures for recycling metal cans. Some may ask that you bring the cans directly to the recycling center, rather than placing them in your recycling bin. 

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What types of metal cans are recyclable?

All metal cans are recyclable, but examples include:

  • Beverage cans, like soda and beer, including the tabs
  • Paint cans
  • Canned goods
  • Aerosol cans

Cleaning metal cans

Don't do this: Toss cans into the recycling bin before cleaning. If foods or liquids are left in the cans, it can contaminate an entire batch of recyclables.

Do this instead: Make sure all cans are clear of liquids or foods that could be left in the container. You can do this by rinsing the can when you're finished with it. 

Also, ask your local recycling center to see if you need to remove the paper labels from the can or if it's part of their process.

What to do with the lids

Canned goods: Don't remove the lid only halfway before placing it into the recycling bin. Instead, completely remove the lid from the can and place it inside the can (after rinsing, of course).

Aerosol cans: Lids on aerosol cans are typically plastic, so you should remove those before putting the cans into the bin. The plastic lids should go with other plastic recyclables.

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Clean out all cans before recycling.

Alina Bradford/CNET

What else should I do?

  • Avoid puncturing aerosol cans to remove the remaining liquid.
  • Make sure all paint is either dry or completely rinsed out before recycling. If you have leftover paint or other hazardous waste, take it to a drop-off center near you.
  • Don't crush aluminum cans before recycling because they can contaminate the batch.

For more recycling information, here's how to properly recycle plastic and the right way to recycle paper and cardboard.

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