aluminum-foil

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Aluminum foil, also known as tin foil, has been one of my favorite lunch box linings. It can keep my food warm longer than the usual plastic containers.

Since it is pliable, an aluminum foil can take the shape of any form like a plastic wrap. The difference, however, is that a foil is thicker and holds shape better. Thus, I use it for freezing food items that need to be molded before frying.

Aluminum foil is also perfect during oven-baking or pan grilling of meat, fish, and vegetables to retain moisture – and I guarantee you it’s juicier when cooked. And whenever I have leftovers in our kitchen that I still want to reheat on the next meal or next day, the foil can do its magic by keeping it fresh.

Besides cooking and packaging, aluminum foil is also used for various purposes such as insulation, transportation, electronics, geological sampling, art, decoration, and many others. 

However, it is not a biodegradable nor a compostable material, so is aluminum foil bad for the environment or not?

I did some research over some processes that it takes before an aluminum foil is displayed on our supermarket shelves, and here’s what I found out.

Want to learn more? Be sure to check out our article on Is Wax Paper Biodegradable for more!

Aluminum Foil is bad for the Environment

I was surprised to find out that my favorite food storage and cooking accessory has an enormous environmental impact. Some of these are as follows:

Resource extractive

Aluminum foils are made from the metal called aluminum (aluminum if you are British), a third of the most abundant metals on the earth’s crust. It is approximately 8% of all the elements next to oxygen and silicon. To extract aluminum from the earth, you have to mine the bauxite ore – a reddish-brown-clay-like deposit with extensive contents of aluminum oxides along with traces of iron and silicates.  

The demand for aluminum has dramatically increased from 45 MT in 2006 to 120 MT in 2015 with an approximate 4% growth rate per year. The growing demand for aluminum means more bauxites to mine. Unfortunately, mining generates significant waste levels during the process, such as tailings, red mud, and greenhouse gas emissions, including perfluorocarbon and CO2 gases.

High carbon footprint

The aluminum industry is estimated to produce  0.45-0.5 Gt of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions per year. This is about 1% of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and 2.5% of the total CO2 emissions

2018 study on aluminum packaging suggests that the negative impacts on aluminum’s environment are mainly associated with the generation of electricity used during the refining process.

Consequently, these processes, 

  1. deplete elements and resources such as fossil fuels
  2. contribute to acidification, eutrophication, global warming
  3. significantly increase energy demand

Greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen fluoride, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, including heavy metals, are also released from aluminum during the extraction and refining process. 

Besides, the industry is highly energy-intensive and releases a large proportion of energy to the atmosphere in waste heat. 

carbon-emissions-shipping
Shipping contributes significantly to yearly carbon emissions
Photo Credit: MAGNIFIER

Carbon emissions from transporting the raw materials to create aluminum foil are likewise significant. The majority of aluminum shipped in Europe is from China – the top producer of aluminum globally. Smaller container vessels – less than 1,200 TEU (i.e., twenty-foot equivalent unit) are already emitting 32.5 g of CO2 emission rate per ton transported in kilometer (i.e., CO2 / t.km). 

We did some computations to determine a carbon footprint guide. It is 19,500kms from Shanghai to Rotterdam. With a factor rate of 32.5 g, CO2 / t.km, assuming it will be transported by a small vessel of 1,200 TEU, I realized that the carbon emission is 5,323.50 t CO2 in just 1 shipping. 

This begs the question, is it really worth the environmental cost? What are the alternatives?

Toxicity

The red mud, a bauxite residue of aluminum refining from the Bayer process, is toxic. It is toxic enough to kill plant and animal life and damage the human lungs if fumes are breathed.

Unfortunately, this hazardous and high alkaline material is not being disposed of properly in some countries. Its unusually high pH is attributed to the sodium hydroxide solution used in the refining process. 

Consistent exposure to red mud can give an average person above the regular 50 mSv per year radiation dosage. While this exposure has likely no significant health risks, this is still not acceptable to some developed countries’ regulations. 

Spent pot lining or (SPL) is another hazardous product of aluminum from smelting. Not only does this contain leachable toxic compounds such as fluorides and cyanides, but it also produces explosive mixtures of hydrogen and methane gas when hydrolyzed with water. Around 20-50kg of SPL is built per tonne of aluminum. 

Most SPL disposed of in landfills unavoidably contaminates groundwater and soil and emits gaseous compounds that could potentially harm any living thing. SPL can also contain metals, nitrides, hydroxides, carbides, carbonates, among others.

Not only is aluminum bad for the environment, but the use of aluminum foil in cooking was also found to have significant human health impacts as well. In one study in 2012, using the foil caused aluminum to leach into food at unacceptable values, especially acidic food.

In 2019, a similar study was conducted showing aluminum contamination of food when used in baking. Accordingly, excessive aluminum consumption leads to serious health risks, such as neurotoxic effects on humans and animals’ embryotoxic effects.

Water-intensive

Water is a scarce resource, and the indicator for its usage is called water scarcity footprint (WSFP). The primary aluminum production has direct and indirect water consumption. It directly utilizes freshwater from mining, refining, and smelters and indirectly uses water from ancillary materials, fuel, and electricity.

The WSFP of global primary aluminum production, excluding the significant producer China, is already at 9.6 m3 H2Oeq.tAl-1. With China, this doubles the figure to 18.2 m3 H2Oeq.tAl-1

We are no water experts, but we recognize that this process uses colossal water consumption. 

Water pollution

Aside from water pollution in mining the aluminum, effluents are also produced from aluminum recycling. During the disposal of aluminum dross, high concentrations of Na+, K+, Mg2+, Ca2+, N-NH3, and pH ( almost 10 ) are released from wastewater treatment facilities.

red-sludge
Industrial waste generated during the refinement of bauxite into alumina using the Bayer process causes pollutes and is toxic
Photo Credit: DancingMan

The effects of very high pH cause adsorption of heavy metal. Saline (meaning salty) and alkaline effluents in surface waters also reduce the ammonia oxidation rate to the bottom parts of the water bodies creating a toxic environment for the aquatic organisms. Without proper ammonia oxidation, organisms will not process significant amounts of nitrogen for their nutrient needs. 

Is aluminum foil recyclable?

Similar to plastics, the only way an aluminum foil can redeem itself is by being recyclable. Recycling aluminum and its alloys require only 5% of total energy than to refine an original ore. 

A stack of compact aluminum cubes ready for recycling
Photo Credit: hroe

However, in the U.K., only 54% of aluminum is being recycled, while the rest is incinerated and thrown into landfills. A large proportion of recycled aluminum comes from aluminum cans. In 2017, out of 3,830 tons of aluminum cans were generated in the U.S. But only 620 or roughly 19% was recycled. From 1960 to 2017, the average recycling rate was only 17%. 

The scenario for aluminum foil, however, is not any better. Aluminum foil is not collected separately for recycling. Most aluminum foils in the world are ordered along with the household waste that goes incinerated or landfilled. 

One of the main reasons for its low recovery is that the cost of sorting, cleaning each and every aluminum foil in the recycling facility is very high.

Is Aluminum Foil Bad For The Environment?

Aluminum foil is probably one of the greatest innovations of this age. However, it is not without a disadvantage. I must say that the environmental and human health impacts of aluminum foil on the environment far outweigh the use and the benefits it provides to people.

If your only option is aluminum foil, make sure to remove the food waste, wash it, then crumple it in round balls before tossing into the recycling bin. In this way, it is easier for recycling facilities to process your tin foil.

Nonetheless, the best way is still to find some alternatives such as paper wax or parchment paper. Both are environmentally friendly options for food wraps, food storage, or grilling and cooking. Better yet, use glass containers if you want to minimize the trash in the landfills.

 In the end, our conscious choice is essential to lessen the impact of our household waste on the environment. The more we are informed, the more we could take part in our little actions.

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