Why The Man Who Pioneered the Recyclable Aluminium Can Chose Not To Patent it

A look at one man’s innovative invention that spurred an entire industry into environmental action.

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Today’s story focuses on William ‘Uncle Bill’ Coors of the Coors beer family, an engineer who turned an impending environmental and expensive problem into an industry-leading technology that transformed how the world produced its beverage containers. Interestingly enough, rather than insist his company patented the concept, he made it available for companies that wanted to reduce their environmental impact… in the 1950’s of all decades.

At the time leading up to the development of Coors’ invention, cans made from tin were the weapon of choice for manufacturers- they were convenient and cheap to manufacture, and significantly lighter than glass bottles, meaning they cost less to ship around the country in freight and fuel costs. The problem for Uncle Bill, however, was that consumers were seeing these cans as a throw-away can, and highways and parks were soon trashed with empty cans; so much so that “ban the can” became a slogan for the 1950’s enviromental movement. He’s also expressed his disdain at the metallic taste that was left in the can from the tin’s inner lining.

Then, as the story goes, Bill met a man by the name of Lou who had won - and squandered - a number of fortunes in his business life so far. “Lou’s idea was to develop a seamless, all-aluminum can. Aluminum was soft and could be formed into a can without solder seams… and the scrap metal price would also be high enough to incent people to pick them up and recycle them. Plus, aluminium was easy to recycle. It took approximately 1/30th the energy to make aluminum from recycled material an ideal container.

“The environmental impact as well as the savings to the manufacturer made aluminum an ideal container.”

From their fateful conversation, Uncle Bill went on to use some of his family’s money to fund a pilot operation producing aluminium cans. The team travelled Europe together, sourcing equipment previously used to make toothpaste tubes for repurposing. In the late 1950s, the pilot program had a number of engineers working away at the roll-out of the cans, all the while attracting the attention - and subsequent wrath - of the United States Brewers Association, who had objected massively to news of the project. “The beer and soda industries, and their container suppliers, were adamantly opposed to taking any responsibility for what consumers did with the empty cans; the litter problem was a consumer problem, not a manufacturers’ problem.”

By 1959, Adolph Coors Company had released their the 7-ounce aluminium can, and the rest, as they say is history.

“Bill knew very quickly that this was something the market had to have.” However, Bill “had very little can manufacturing capacity, and would need other suppliers, so he sold the full engineering package, everything someone needed to know to make the all-aluminium cans, for $300,000 to anyone who was interested,” the story goes.

In the early stages of the roll-out, the awareness of the can’s recyclability hadn’t spread much further than Coors’ home market. However, the company led an initiative around the United States, offering a penny for every can returned by consumers, as well as asking its distributors to pass on this refund to the customer. Soon after, the concept of recycling aluminium cans became mainstream in the US, and the parks and highways were soon littered with significantly fewer beverage containers than in the era of tin cans.

In 2009, the 50th anniversary of the invention of the aluminium can was celebrated, and at an event Uncle Bill said the following: “I think the thing that is so unique about the aluminum can is that it required no marketing. It sold itself. Nobody wanted it. Brewers didn’t want it. Can manufacturers didn’t want it. Nobody wanted it, but consumer demand drove this incredible conversion,” and the environmental impact of its invention would speak for itself.

In 2019 and in the 60th anniversary of Uncle Bill’s innovation, we tip our environmental hat to the man that was committed to reducing his organisation’s environmental impact, as well as altruistically spreading the word of his invention so other organisations would pick up where he left off.

Cheers to you, Uncle Bill.

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