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By Lois Quenneville
You know the iconic picture of a goat eating a tin can. Well, I can tell you, I have goats, and they don’t eat tin cans. Before I knew we had a recycling center that took tin cans, I tried it. My goats also don’t eat plastic jewelry, glass soy sauce bottles or kittens. So, now you know.
The old’ tin can has quite a history. You can thank Napoleon for essentially spurring the can’s development. In 1800, Napoleon’s government sponsored a contest to find a way to preserve food for his army. Prior to the development of canning food, your choices of cuisine were somewhat limited. You could eat your meal fresh, salted, pickled or spoiled. Napoleon knew that his army fought better when they weren’t starving or food-poisoned, so he put up $12,000 francs (about the equivalent of $40,000 today) as prize money for the contest. A Frenchman named Nicolas Appart had already been experimenting with boiling foods in an airtight glass jar (corked and then sealed with wax) and had been having pretty good results. The preserved foods were basically similar to my cooking- tasteless, but wouldn’t outright kill you. But here’s the problem with glass- it didn’t travel well cross-country. Glass jars were also expensive and heavy and hard to mass produce. So Appart won the preservation “method” contest, but lost the more lucrative “production” battle. He even lost his claim to his food preservation method to an Englishman, Peter Durand, who patented Appart’s method in 1810, but instead of using a glass jar, he sneakily used a steel can plated with tin. A small change that made a huge difference.
Tin is a rather rare earth element, making up only about 2 parts per million of the earth’s crust, versus say, 94 parts per million for zinc, or 50,000 parts per million for iron. Like other metals, it has to be mined. Humans have been digging up tin since at least the Bronze Age, as bronze is made by melting copper and tin together to form an alloy. Pure tin is kind of like pure gold in that it is soft at room temperature and doesn’t like to chemically react with much stuff (which makes it perfect for containing food). So you can easily make a pure tin can, it just won’t hold its shape very well and would be very expensive. You will run into the same problem trying to make a can out of pure gold, but it at least it will be very pretty. BUT, you can roll that tin out into a ridiculously fine sheet that can then be used to line a cheap steel can and, viola’, strong, cheap cans that won’t rust out from your tomato sauce. And so mass production canned goods became the norm at the grocery store and glass jar canning remained the flagship of home canners everywhere. Interesting note: the Can Opener was not invented until 1855, almost 40 years after the first canned food made its appearance. Prior to 1855, getting into a can of food was a challenge involving either blunt force, such as bashing the lid in or knocking it off with a hammer, or stabbing holes into the lid with a sharp knife. So in essence, you still had to attack your food in order to get to eat it.
Most cans these days don’t even have tin on them anymore. Plastic often replaces the tin lining, or the can is aluminum and doesn’t need a non-reactive liner. Tin has become even more rare as there are only a few tin mines still producing and like most metals, is expensive to refine. So tin is on the way out. But steel remains strong (get the pun?) and it is doubtful that our cans of Green Giant peas or SpaghettiOs will be repackaged in anything different for the foreseeable future.
The problem with steel (there’s always a problem, or this would make for very dull read) is that the steps involved in making steel are very, well, vigorously physical. You first have to coax the iron ore out of the ground where it is very inconveniently mixed with a lot of other earthy stuff. The most common way to get to your iron is by scraping off all the growing things on a mountain and then blowing the mountain to Kingdom Come with dynamite. (If you can’t get to the iron that way, which is the cheap and fast way, you have to tunnel down into the earth and haul it out). Once you’ve blown up the mountain, you’ve got to pick up all the broken boulders and put them in a house-sized dump truck and take them to several huge machines that crush the boulders eventually down to marbles. Then, using a bunch of different ways which I will not go into, you separate out the iron. Then, the iron is sent to the furnaces where it is VERY HOT (1,600 F) and is melted and impurities are burned or melted off and now you have purified iron, or steel. Steel is usually combined with various other metals (and recycled steel) to give it special properties to be used for specific purposes. In 2019, the two main steel producers in the US produced about 195 million tons of steel and they did all that with only about 31,000 employees. (Compare that to the over 500,000 people employed by our US Postal Service or the 1.5 million Walmart employees). Making steel is hot and heavy work- most of which is done by massive machines. Running this steel production menagerie of mammoth equipment produces about 2 tons of CO2 for every ton of steel created. So that’s about 390 million tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gas last year alone.
The nice thing about metals is that they are usually recyclable. Steel is definitely recyclable, regardless of its shape or form. So, your old 1972 Junker Chevy and that 1959 broken steel garden bench are all prime recycling material. But you can’t park your old jalopy in the Memphis Recycling shed or throw your bench into the steel can bin. You’ll need to take those things to a scrap metal recycler. (I know there are several listed on the internet). But our Memphis recycling center wants to challenge everyone to concentrate on getting those not-made-out-of-tin tin cans to them. Rinse them out good. No one wants a stinky recycling center.
Speaking of rinsing and cleaning of recyclables, Allen wanted me to remind you of these basics:
1. Stick to items that you know can be recycled.
a. Paper: Junk Mail, Magazines, Newspapers, Paperback Books, Paper Bags, Office paper. No paper damaged by water, etc.
b. Cardboard: Flatten Boxes, Keep Clean and Dry, No Food or Grease (sorry pizza boxes)
c. Metal: Steel (Tin) Cans and Aluminum Cans, Empty cans, rinse if needed, and tap them dry.
d. Plastic #1 & 2: Bottles and Jugs: Empty, rinse and tap dry.
2. Don’t include soiled food items. They can turn an entire load of recycling into trash.
3. Don’t include single use items such as plastic grocery bags (remember- these can go to Walmart, along with Zip-lock bags, bread bags and cereal box plastic liners), straws, utensils, cups and take-out containers. It’s better to throw out something that is recyclable than to include something that isn’t and risk contaminating a load of “good” recyclables.
4. Don’t add sharp or dangerous materials like needles and electronics. They can cause injury to workers. If you don’t want to stick your hand down into your trash, neither do they.
Alright, so hopefully we all have a feeling for how important it is to stop being so trashy! Stop throwing away so much stuff! For crying out loud, mountains are being blown up so we can have our choice of at least 23 different stainless steel fish deboners! The rule should be, “What you buy is what you are responsible for”. When you bought that family-size can of Pork and Beans, you bought not only the beans, but that can that went with it. That’s now your stuff. What are you going to do with it? Are you going to contribute to that huge pile of toxic filth that we call landfills or do you prefer see it eventually float up onto our beaches? Or are you going to bury it in the back 40? Remember, most of the stuff we are tossing out now isn’t biodegradable, so it’s going to be around in its useless form for a really, really, really long time.
Let’s all agree that everything we own, we have to take care of from start to finish. If you can’t reuse it, recycle it or repurpose it, maybe you shouldn’t buy it. So, let’s be mindful consumers. Start with small steps. For instance, here’s something I’ve started doing- So first you need to know that I LOVE chocolate candy. I mean, I REALLY LOVE chocolate candy. It’s like a day without chocolate is not a day. So for years I would buy a bag of those little “Fun Size” (more like “Frustration Size”) individually wrapped Hershey chocolate bars, or Twix, or whatever looked good to me at the time as I was salivating all over the candy aisle. I would, on an average day, eat 2-4 of these little jobbers. On a bad day, I might eat the whole bag. After several years of this, I estimated the number of candy wrappers I threw away a year- assuming every day was a good day- was 730 to 1460 candy wrappers. Crazy! So now I’m copying my Mom. Of course, her dementia was already pretty much in full-swing by the time she introduced me to this little gem: Just buy yourself a big bag of Toll-House Semi-Sweet Chocolates and eat a handful at a time. Of course, it turns out that that was all she was eating when left to her own devices. But I have found that I can make this bag of chocolates last for about two months. So now I produce 6 empty Toll-House bags a year. These bags are not yet recyclable (thanks a lot, Nestle), so I wash them, dry them and store them along with other clean non-recyclable packaging. I intend to use all this trash as stuffing in some art projects that include a Christmas wreath and a life-size papier-mache Marlin (the fish, not the baseball player). All the while, waiting for the producers of all this packaging to get with the program and start using materials that will either always be useful, or can easily be returned to their original components. So be creative, be mindful, be responsible, be smart. By taking care of the planet, we take care of ourselves and each other. See you at the recycling bins!