I saw someone out scrounging for aluminum cans recently. That made me wonder, what’s an aluminum can worth?

I remember my Dad telling me once that as he drove to one of the many remote hospitals in southern Missouri that he used to cover, he got used to seeing a couple on a riding lawnmower, driving along the shoulder of the road, picking up cans. He commented that he didn’t realize aluminum was worth enough to make that worthwhile.

Being a notorious cheapskate–so much so that the indigenous people of the Himalayas have a folk song about me–I decided to find out.

There’s a recycling place between home and work that I drive past whenever I’m hitting the grocery store on the way home. It posts its aluminum prices where they’re highly visible from the roadside. Price varies; I’ve seen it as high as 39 cents a pound and probably as low as 33 cents a pound.

Lacking a scale with enough precision to weigh a can, I did a Web search and found someplace saying that a pound of aluminum makes about 36 cans.

So, in south St. Louis in 2004, an aluminum can is worth about a penny. But I’ll grant that it has the advantage of being more likely to be sitting on the side of the road, and being far more visible.

Why that high? Aluminum isn’t a rare element by any means but it’s more expensive to process than iron or copper or tin. I’ve heard it said that you can estimate the amount of energy required to process an aluminum can by filling the can with gasoline. So a gallon of gasoline produces enough energy to refine enough bauxite into aluminum to make 10.75 cans.

At a penny a can, it’s certainly not worth my time to go out hunting them, as I’m sure I can’t find 500 of them in an hour. And I save a lot more money by not drinking soda than I’d save by saving the cans. (If you don’t want to give up soda, try cutting back and/or changing to generics. How much you save will amaze you.)

But is it worth my while to save the cans I do inevitably end up with? Sure. Also remember, a lot of other food containers are made partially of aluminum. We use aluminum foil all the time in our kitchens. Pie pans and other disposable food containers are often made of aluminum. My yogurt and applesauce containers have an aluminum foil lining under the lid.

Ten pounds of aluminum yields enough cash to pay for lunch at the cafeteria at work. I don’t know yet if I can accumulate 10 pounds in a month, or if it’ll take all year. But there’s only one way to find out.

Maybe I’ll find that it takes too long. But if that’s the case, my church saves cans. If everyone who goes to my church donated a pound of aluminum a month, we’d be talking $300-$400. And that’s enough money to do something at least semi-serious.

What’s an aluminum can worth? If you guessed a penny a can, you have my congratulations.