Global demand for food, feed and fibre are expected to double by 2050 as the world’s population grows to 9.7 billion.1 Population growth, coupled with further industrialisation and urbanisation, will result in increased demand for water. Freshwater withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years and the demand continues to increase by 64 billion cubic meters a year.2 Current needs are also still going unmet, with more than one out of six people lacking access to safe drinking water, or 1.1 billion people.3

Steel is needed for growing, storing and delivering our food. It is also needed in water collection, storage, purification and distribution. Steel also provides solutions that help to improve water management and reduce losses. For example, in many cities more than 40% of the total water supply is lost during distribution. Tokyo has adopted corrugated stainless steel pipes for 90% of its extensive network of underground potable water pipes, eliminating leakages and lowering costs.4

Steel’s role in food and water supply

For food

  • Agriculture: farming tools and equipment, silos, equipment to feed and shelter livestock, pipes and irrigation systems, water tanks
  • Distribution: ships and shipping containers, rail, trucks, planes and related infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels, rail track, fueling stations, train stations, ports and airports
  • Preservation and storage: food cans, refrigerators
  • Preparation: appliances such as stoves, ovens and microwaves, and utensils.

For water

  • Collection: pumps, pipes, well-drilling equipment
  • Storage and distribution: pumps, pipes, tanks, buckets
  • Purification and recycling: equipment and tanks for waste water treatment plants and desalination plants.

Steel cans – preserving food safely and sustainably

Almost 200 billion cans of food are produced each year. Compared to other food preservation methods, steel cans save energy because refrigeration and freezing is not needed. They are also tamper-resistant and protect food and drink from moisture, oxygen and light, helping to preserve the nutritional value of their contents without the need for additives.

Steel cans are 100% recyclable; they are the most recycled form of packaging. Thanks to its magnetic properties, steel is easy to extract, and the scrap can be reused by steel companies to offset the consumption of raw materials and energy. A significant proportion of the steel in a can comes from recycled sources.

An average European-wide steel packaging recycling rate of 75% was achieved in 2013.5 In the US, the figure issued by the Steel Recycling Institute indicates that 70% of steel cans were recycled in the US in 2013, the highest among packaging materials.6

There is also potential to make steel cans reusable and lighter by altering designs and canning processes.

The majority of steel used in packaging is tinplate, which is steel that has been coated with a layer of tin to prevent corrosion. Although tinplate only accounts for around 1% of steel production, it is a highly visible and dynamic industry. Brands and products compete for consumers’ attention on the shelves of supermarkets and other retailers.

The manufacturing processes used in steel packaging are high-tech and sophisticated. Commercial production began in 1812, in a canning factory near London that supplied food to the British army. In 1846, cans were manufactured at the rate of 60 an hour. Modern can-makers can produce up to 1,000 cans a minute.

Once the steel is coated with tin, the tinplate can be coated with polymer, lacquered and printed. The final result is an attractive, safe and functional product.


1. World Population Prospects The 2015 Revision United Nations, World Population Prospects, The 2015 Revision, p. 2


3. WHO/UNICEF JMP, Estimation for 2002, 2004.

4. Cutler, P., Nickel Institute, Stainless steels and drinking water around the world, 2003.

5. APEAL, the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging

6. Steel Recycling Insitute

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