Aluminum foil is, unfortunately, not the most environmentally friendly product.
While you can find it in nearly every household, there are a few things to consider when we look closely at how it is used.
In this article, we discuss different factors involved in its circulation, production, and disposal to better paint a picture of its role in our environment.
1. What Is Aluminum Foil Made Of?
Aluminum foil is made from an alloy composed of between 92-99% metal aluminum.
As a metal, aluminum is a silvery-white, soft, non-magnetic, and ductile metal in the boron group.
It is the third most abundant element (after oxygen and silicon) in the Earth’s crust and the most abundant metal.
Aluminum is always found combined in nature, typically in the compound bauxite (the primary ore of aluminum), where it is processed from alumina into refined aluminum metal.
When separated from these compounds, aluminum can be used in various industrial and consumer products, including aluminum foil, cans, cookware, and transportation vehicles.
Aluminum foil is also produced in various widths and strengths for different industrial purposes, such as thermal insulation in construction, stock in air conditioners, electrical coils in transformers, and consumer and packaging products.
2. Is Aluminum Foil Eco-Friendly?
Aluminum foil, when considered as a product of its industry, is not eco-friendly.
The main reason is the energy expenditure and waste required to transform the metal into a product.
According to scientists, while aluminum foil has many benefits (such as being lightweight and resistant), its production process has a high energy consumption and low recycling rate.
The study also found that the impact of aluminum foil production is relatively high on global warming and acidification:
For instance, it is estimated that as an industry, aluminum production creates close to half a million tons of CO2, equivalent to 2.5% of total CO2 emissions worldwide.
We should also consider that the production process releases sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ammonia.
These chemicals have an acidification effect on the environment, meaning they change the composition of soil and water.
This contributes to greenhouse effects, depletes ozone, and drives eutrophication.
3. Is Aluminum Foil Toxic?
According to some researchers, aluminum foil should be considered toxic.
The most important study related to this claim comes from Egyptian researchers who studied the effect of using foil and silicon cooking cups for baking a cake.
They found the cake samples cooked in the foil cups contained levels of aluminum that would be considered a significant health risk.
Other studies have illustrated that even if the amount of aluminum transferred from foil into our food was not significant, since we live in an environment where we are regularly exposed to or ingest aluminum – cumulatively, it would be dangerous nonetheless.
The main concern they raise is the neurotoxicity of aluminum, which can cause Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurological diseases.
Another aspect, particularly hazardous to both people and the environment, is the “red mud” produced as a by-product of aluminum production.
Red mud is another name for bauxite residue. For every tonne of aluminum, 1.5 to 2.5 tonnes of highly alkaline red mud is generated.
Although this toxic waste is treated before disposal, whilst in storage, scientists note it poses an ongoing threat to soil, air, and groundwater, as it leaches into and poisons the surrounding area.
4. Is Aluminum Foil Biodegradable?
No, aluminum foil is not biodegradable.
Aluminum is an inorganic metal, so it doesn’t have the molecular properties that make it amenable to biological degradation.
The foil will gradually oxidize and be broken down, but since it is designed to be very resistant to heat and moisture, this can take a long time.
To illustrate, the average atmospheric corrosion rate (i.e., through air, rain, snow, etc.) for aluminum is 0.03 to 4 micrometers per year.
Given that the average depth of a foil sheet is around 0.016 mm, this means it would take four years to corrode a single sheet at the fastest rate.
Rather than waiting for aluminum foil to degrade, it is more likely to be recycled and reused.
5. Is Aluminum Foil Recyclable?
Yes, aluminum foil is a highly recyclable product.
Recycling aluminum foil is energy-efficient and can be done multiple times without losing quality.
Moreover, recycling aluminum only takes 5% of the energy needed to produce it from scratch.
The question is whether it is recycled or not.
In 2021, the US went through 4.3 million tons of aluminum products (including foil, packaging, and containers ).
Of this, approximately only 30% was recycled.
Unfortunately, as the EPA explains, aluminum generation has gone up, year-on-year. However, the recycling rate has not.
If this trend continues, we may see the recycling rate fall even further.
6. Is Aluminum Foil Sustainable?
As it stands, aluminum foil is not sustainable. We can explain this from a few different angles:
Foil production requires extracting aluminum first from the ore bauxite, then into alumina (a compound of aluminum oxide).
The alumina must then be purified to refine the aluminum metal into foil.
All these processes add up in terms of energy consumption, such as electricity, gas, and other resources.
In total, from mining to final fabrication, it takes 279 megajoules (MJ) of energy per kg of aluminum.
For comparison, it only calls for 6.2 to 10.8 MJ to create the same amount of plastic.
As discussed, the aluminum industry is one of the significant contributors to CO2.
Though efforts have been made to cut down on these emissions, particularly to meet net-zero goals by 2030, the International Energy Agency does not believe aluminum pollution is on track to meet these goals.
Supporting what we have discussed above:
An overall analysis of the lifecycle of aluminum foil suggests that until we invest more in recycling and reusing foil, fuel, water, electricity, and resource consumption will remain a prevalent problem in the industry.
7. What Are Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Aluminum Foil?
The most common domestic uses of aluminum foil are usually in food storage and cooking, so let’s look at some alternative ideas for these uses:
For storage, we can use:
- Reusable packaging
- Biodegradable packaging
- Beeswax or cedar wraps
For cooking, you could switch to:
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