Why You Shouldn’t Crush an Aluminum Can Before Recycling It

Not crushing aluminum cans before recycling them may seem wrong, but keeping them whole is actually better for the environment

Crushing aluminum cans is more than just fun—it means the can will take up less space, right? Not so fast. It turns out crushing aluminum cans is actually worse for the environment because it can muck up the sorting process.

How can crushing cans affect the recycling process?

First, consider how your town or city recycles. In a single-stream recycling system, consumers place all recyclables—cans, paper, plastic, glass—in one bin. They’ll later be sorted at a municipal facility. Most recycling collection programs are single-stream.

But you shouldn’t crush cans in a single-stream system. That’s because it’s harder for the electrical current which helps separate out aluminum cans at municipal recycling facilities to identify them as cans when they’re crushed.

“This makes it more likely that the can will be lost or mis-sorted with other materials,” says Matt Meenan, the senior director of public affairs for the Aluminum Association. And that can contaminate the entire batch of recyclables.

In addition, factors at recycling facilities can come into play. “The design, age of the facility, and desired targeted commodities all fluctuate, so that can impact aluminum sorting as well,” notes Meredith Leahy, waste diversion and circular solutions manager at Rubicon Global.

So keep cans as intact as possible for when you recycle cans in single-stream systems. Plastic bottles, on the other hand, are best recycled crushed—and with the caps on. Here’s why.

When is it a good idea to crush aluminum cans for recycling?

That said, if your city or town uses a multi-stream or dual-stream recycling method, crushing cans is beneficial when you recycle cans. Multi-stream means that you separate your recyclables. And since all the cans go together, they can’t contaminate other products.

“If you live in an area where you are already sorting or separating out your cans, folks should feel free to crush away,” Meenan says.

So, find out how your town recycles before crushing your cans.