I admit that aluminum foil is handy when broiling and roasting meat, fish, or veggies in the oven. It's an excellent conductor of heat and does a good job covering your baking tray to prevent food from sticking to surfaces while it cooks or as a wrap or cover for food storage to prevent spoiling.
Unfortunately, when you use aluminum foil for this purpose, it often ends up covered in food… as we have discussed before, if something is covered in food, it can’t be recycled. This begs the question, can tin foil be recycled?
Knowing how to dispose of waste properly is one of the most impactful things you can do if you are trying to adopt more sustainable living practices.
But would you believe me if I told you that some technically recyclable items could contaminate other recyclables if you don’t take proper precautions? It’s true! The average recycling dumpster in the US contains 25% non-recyclable material.
Before we dive into how tin foil fits into this story and how to recycle aluminum foil, let’s back up a bit and first answer the question...
What is aluminum foil?
Aluminum foil (sometimes called tin foil) first came onto the scene in the early 1900s and is made from thinly pressed aluminum sheets. Aluminum is a soft, non-magnetic metal mined from bauxite ore. Bauxite is a very common mineral and is fairly easy to mine since it's found close to the earth's surface.
According to the Everyday Recycler, four to six tonnes of bauxite ore produces one tonne of aluminum.
Fun fact: Tin foil and aluminum foil are technically not the same thing! Tin foil was the predecessor to aluminum foil and, as the name suggests, is made up of thinly pressed sheets of tin.
After World War II, tin foil was replaced with aluminum since it was more durable and cheaper. However, consumers continued to call the aluminum substitute “tin foil,” and we still use both names interchangeably today.
When comparing aluminum foil to plastic cling wrap (made from a type of plastic called LDPE), they found that tin foil lost in most categories, including “fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, human health impacts, aquatic toxicity, and potential for eutrophication.”
To make the comparison even more clear, you would have to use one piece of foil three times for it to contribute to less aquatic toxicity than using three pieces of LDPE.
On the bright side, recycling aluminum foil is very robust. According to the Aluminum Association, about 75% of all the aluminum produced in the US since the 1880s is still in circulation.
Aluminum can also be recycled and turned into new aluminum in only 60 days and can go through this process repeatedly without losing the product's quality. This effort uses only 5% of the energy required to make a new aluminum product from scratch and saves more than 90 million barrels of oil equivalent yearly!
Is Aluminum Foil Recyclable?
Can tin foil be recycled? The recyclability of aluminum foil first depends on where you are located. You can always check out Earth911’s recycling locator to confirm your local recycling facilities, and the blue box program will accept the material. If they accept aluminum foil, they will likely also accept other aluminum-based products like pop cans and pie tins.
Let’s say you have completed this step and can recycle aluminum foil in your community. What do you do next?
First, try to clean and separate your aluminum foil before recycling it. As I mentioned, wet and dry food can contaminate recycled streams, so perfectly good recyclable products might be sent to landfills.
If you used aluminum foil for roasting and there is oil or crumbs on it, rinse it with eco-friendly dish soap. However, if your foil is covered in caked-on grease or cheese that can’t easily be removed, you should throw the foil in the garbage.
How to Recycle Aluminum Foil: Easy Cleaning Steps
- Use a clean rag or sponge to remove food or debris from the aluminum foil. Be gentle so that the foil doesn't tear.
- Fill a sink or basin with warm water and add a few drops of dish soap.
- Soak the aluminum foil in soapy water for a few minutes.
- Scrub the aluminum foil gently with a soft-bristled brush or sponge to remove any remaining food or debris.
- Rinse the aluminum foil thoroughly with clean water to remove any soap residue.
- Check the aluminum foil for any remaining food particles or grease. If there are still any visible stains, repeat the cleaning process.
- Once the aluminum foil is completely clean, shake off any excess water and allow it to air dry.
- Once dry, ensure it's completely flat and free of wrinkles or creases.
- Place the clean and dry aluminum foil in your recycling bin with other aluminum products.
This might sound like a lot of work, but I promise it's worth it! There are SO many benefits that come from recycling aluminum foil. Two obvious benefits are less energy is used to make new products and a lower carbon impact. Because recycled aluminum makes up 80% of U.S. aluminum production, these benefits can scale up pretty quickly.
Can aluminum pie pans and takeout containers be recycled?
Yes, aluminum pie pans and takeout containers are recyclable if they are food residue-free.
To recycle aluminum pie pans and takeout containers, clean them thoroughly and remove any food or grease. You can place them in your recycling bin or take them to a local recycling center that accepts aluminum.
It's important to note that any cardboard with the containers should be placed with paper recycling, as mixing different materials can contaminate the recycling process.
Common Misconceptions About Recycling Aluminum Foil
Before we go any further, I need to clear up some myths about recycling aluminum foil…
Myth one: Soiled aluminum foil will always be a source of contamination in recycling streams
Not all recycling facilities have sustainable technology to handle soiled or mixed aluminum. But this might not be the case forever as recycling facilities are increasing their ability to take different kinds of materials.
Myth two: You can only recycled crumpled foil
You might have heard that you should crumple aluminum foil into a large ball before adding it to your recycling bin so it doesn't blow away in the wind. While this is true, it is not a necessary step for the foil to be recycled.
Myth three: Aluminum foil must be squeaky clean to be recycled
Sometimes aluminum foil might be lined with plastic or another petroleum-based product that wouldn’t enter the same recycling stream as an aluminum-based product. In these cases, your aluminum foil STILL won’t be able to be recycled, no matter how clean it is.
Ways to Reuse Aluminum Foil
- Cover food: You can reuse aluminum foil to cover and store leftover food in the refrigerator or freezer.
- Sharpen scissors: Fold a piece of used aluminum foil several times and cut it with scissors to sharpen the blades.
- Clean your grill: Use a ball of crumpled aluminum foil to scrub and clean your grill grates.
- Protect your oven: If you have a messy casserole or pie that might bubble over in the oven, you can create a barrier by lining the bottom with aluminum foil.
- Remove rust: Scrub rust from metal objects with crumpled aluminum foil.
- Create art: Use colorful permanent markers to draw designs on clean, and use aluminum foil to make art.
- DIY dryer balls: Make your reusable by scrunching a ball of aluminum foil and tossing it in the dryer with your clothes.
- Make a funnel: You can fold a piece of aluminum foil into a funnel to pour liquids or dry goods into containers.
- Insulate windows: In the winter, you can create temporary insulation for your windows by taping aluminum foil on the inside of the window frame to reflect heat into your home.
Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Aluminum Foil
While it’s true that tin foil can be recycled, and this is great, I suggest avoiding it completely. I have a few favorites when it comes to tin foil alternatives:
- Beeswax wraps: Unlike tin foil, beeswax wrap allows the food to “breathe,” keeping it fresher for longer. But perhaps one of the best things about beeswax wrap is that it's compostable! Unlike most soft plastic films, beeswax wraps are easy to clean and reuse.
- Silicone products are becoming increasingly popular in the kitchen due to their eco-friendliness and durability. While silicone is a synthetic polymer, it is BPA-free. It can withstand temperatures ranging from -60 to 200 degrees Celsius (it can go in the oven), making it a popular material for baking mats, pots, pan lids, and pouches.
- Reusable cloth wraps and rags: covering food with a reusable cloth you already have at home is also a good option if you store food quickly.
- Glass jars: Glass is reusable and recyclable! Compared to making new glass products, recycled glass reduces air pollution by 20% and water-related pollution by 50%.
- Stainless steel containers are another durable and reusable alternative to aluminum foil. They are lightweight and can be used for both storing and cooking food. They are dishwasher safe and won't transfer harmful chemicals to your food.
- Compostable Ziploc bags: Unlike normal Ziploc bags, they are made from PLA and PBAT (AKA plants) and will easily break down into carbon and water.
- Parchment paper: Parchment paper is a great alternative to aluminum foil when baking. It's non-stick and can withstand high temperatures.
Avoiding aluminum foil completely is the preferred choice for the environment and can set you on the right track if you want a zero-waste kitchen. If you recycle aluminum foil incorrectly, it will end up in a landfill, which might take up to 500 years to break down naturally.
A Final Word on recycling aluminum foil
Recycling aluminum foil is good for both the environment and the economy. That much we know to be true! However, avoiding aluminum foil altogether is the best choice if you want to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle… in that case, beeswax wrap and reusable silicone products are my favorite alternatives!
But I hope one of your biggest takeaways from today is that it's so important to know how to recycle aluminum foil properly, which goes for disposing of ALL your kitchen waste!
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