'Cans for Pets' boosts recycling, helps shelters in several states

Nov 22, 2014

Recycling saves energy -- recycling one aluminum can save enough energy to run a television for three hours. But some segments of the population apparently haven't heard that message -- like pet owners. Aluminum pet food cans are one of the least recycled household items. Now there's a program to reverse that trend with an incentive to recycle, that also helps shelter animals.

Margaret Corrado is an exception to the rule. At a pet store south of Pittsburgh, she dumps about 40 little empty cat food cans from a plastic grocery bag into a blue recycling bin.

Corrado’s cat Harley eats about a can of food a day. Corrado says normally she would recycle them, but instead she brought them to the lobby of the pet store because it’s a drop off site for a program called Cans for Pets. The Animal Rescue League Shelter & Wildlife Center, a local shelter, will get 5 cents for each can.

"You know, you’re filling up your pet’s water bowl, the water’s on, just rinse out the can. Throw it in a bag, and bring it here," Corrado says.

Cans for Pets was set up about two years ago by Pennsylvania Resources Council(PRC), a statewide conservation advocacy group.

"Americans recycle only about 20 percent of their aluminum pet food cans versus almost 65 percent of beverage cans," says Justin Stockdale, PRC's Western Regional Director.

He says he learned long ago that if the conservation conversation is all about saving spotted owls and preventing clearcuts, then recycling would only reach a small percentage of the population.

To reach more people, they have to appeal to other values, Stockdale says. That’s especially true where recycling isn’t mandatory by law in a community. For pet lovers, that extra motivation could be saving stray cats and dogs. Stockdale says many consumers don’t even realize cat food cans, in particular, are recyclable.

"Historically it was all in tin cans, and that was a different animal," he says. "No pun intended."

Now pet food cans are lighter in weight and look disposable, so the program also helps educate people about what can go in the recycling bin. 

It seems to be paying off. By the end of September, over 171,000 cans were collected. The program has been expanded from Pittsburgh to Lancaster, Pa. and to communities in Tennessee and Indiana.

ALCOA has a presence in all of these locations. The foundation arm of the global can maker funds the donations to local animal shelters. It’s more efficient for the aluminum company to make their products from recycled aluminum than from raw materials—the company says it takes 95 percent less energy. So making sure more aluminum cans find their way into the recycling stream is good business.

It’s good for animal shelters, too.

Dan Rossi, the Animal Rescue League’s executive director, says the money raised through collecting the cans is used to spay and neuter shelter animals. Rossi says some people drop off trunkloads of cans at the Pittsburgh shelter.

"There are people that say, ‘I don’t recycle anything else but I recycle my cat food cans.’ So we’re making people think," he says.

Rossi hopes people will take that next step and recycle other cans and materials. He says the shelter will continue to collect and recycle the cans even after the funding for the program ends next spring, because it’s good for the community. But Justin Stockdale, with PRC, says it would be even better if shelters continued the programs as an ongoing revenue stream, selling the cans as scrap metal.