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What’s an aluminum can worth?

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.

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5 thoughts on “What’s an aluminum can worth?”

  1. Can’t speak for other states but in California you have to pay a deposit, called a CRV, on canned beverages just like the days of returnable glass bottles. Also I’ve seen the redemption value for a pound of cans vary from 90 cents to $1.05. Class 1 recyclable plastic (like water bottles) will bring about 43 cents a pound. Other plastics have redemption value but it quickly drops to a price point that no one considers worth while, especially when the redemption centers have additional handling requirements because other plastics are used to contain various household and industrial chemicals that don’t always mix well (those few drops left in the bottom do add up). Back to aluminum, the big plus for recycling is the reduced cost of re-processing. A common example used is – 20 cans can be made from recycled aluminum for the same cost 1 can can be made from virgin ore. Out here, you often see various school or Kid’s groups raising money by collecting cans from people. When I had a trash bag full of cans, I’d give it to a friend at work for his daughter’s scout troop. I like recycling because it makes me feel better than having everything be disposable, and, while it doesn’t completely solve the problem you see fewer cans and plastic bottles on the road as litter when folks can pick them up for cash.

    Some things you must love because they’re impossible to like

    1. <<in California you have to pay a deposit, called a CRV, on canned beverages just like the days of returnable glass bottles. Also I’ve seen the redemption value for a pound of cans vary from 90 cents to $1.05. >>

      Hmmm, won’t be worth much if I had to buy them in CA and pay that CRV, but if I were in a different state, where I don’t have to pay that CRV, it would be worth it to drive them to CA. But then that would cost me gas and wear and tear on my car, and besides I don’t have a large enough car to make it really worth my while. Let’s see…hmmm, if only I were friends with a mailman. Yeah. Then I might be able to borrow his van, stuff it full of cans, drive to to CA, and make a million bucks!!! Now to find that mailman….

      1. Well, I suppose you could move to Las Vegas (aka Lost Wages) where you don’t have to pay state income tax on the money you make from other peoples’ shortfalls. Then it’s only a short drive to CA where the time and gas would be worthwhile if your truck were large enough – you could become an Aluminum magnate – a real regal recycler. But for most of us the dream of actually getting rich from behaving responsibly is just that – guess we’ll just have to get by on smug satisfaction.

        Some things you must love because they’re impossible to like

    2. In NY, the deposit is $.05 a can and can be redeemed at a corner store. This is deposit low enough to allow certain people to discard the cans at will, and high enough to let people who are motivated enough to scrounge through the garbageand dumpsters to collect and redeem them.
      What’s wrong with this picture?


      1. Columbia, Missouri had a 5-cent deposit when I was in college there in the mid-’90s. You saw a lot of people going through dumpsters and the like looking for cans. Some were fraternity pledges raising money for their projects, but mostly it was the homeless. Stores for the most part hated it, because the larger drugstores and grocery stores had to devote one employee to handling nothing but cans.

        Also, I remember a gas station situated literally a foot outside the city limits that did a booming business because sales tax was slightly lower and there was no deposit. On a Friday it was almost impossible to get in and out of the place.

        Columbia abolished the deposit some years back. And while it used to be that you couldn’t go anywhere in Columbia without seeing homeless people, now when I go back there I never see them.

        Now, as far as buying cans somewhere where there isn’t a deposit and transporting them to a state or municipality that has one and turning them in, that definitely went on in Columbia when I went to school. That was one of the arguments in favor of getting rid of the deposit, since obviously if more cans are turned in than sold with the deposit–which is possible in theory at least–then there’s a shortfall. Obviously that bothers some people more than others.

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