Can You Recycle Aluminium Foil?

Can You Recycle Aluminium Foil?
As long as the burrito isn't still inside, you can probably recycle this aluminium foil. In New York City, you wouldn't even have to clean it off. (Photo: AZFAR ARTS, Shutterstock)

Aluminium cans are the quintessential easy recyclable. There’s no draconian number-sorting scheme, no lids to remove, and usually the quickest of rinses serves to get them clean. Beverage cans are infinitely recyclable, as they can be processed into new cans, sheet metal, or anything else aluminium any number of times, without the material degrading or losing strength — unlike plastic, which rapidly turns into trash, if it’s ever recycled at all.

The same is true of all other consumer aluminium products. Aluminium foil, trays, pans, and take-out containers are ALL eminently recyclable. In theory, any used aluminium can be melted down and remade into just-like-new aluminium items.

In practice though, whether or not you can simply toss aluminium foil into your yellow bin (and how to do it correctly) varies based on where you live. Cans are widely accepted in municipal recycling programs across Australia, but not everywhere accepts foil, said Kara Napolitano. And different places have different local guidelines.

“Across the country, recycling programs want your soda cans. That’s the most surefire thing that’s going to be included in the list of accepted items. Aluminium foil is the maybe,” Napolitano explained.

Why Maybe?

There are a few reasons aluminium foil might not be accepted for municipal recycling where you live, but the biggest factor is economic. “Aluminium foil is a little less valuable than aluminium cans. It’s just a bit flimsier, so there might be less desire for it,” Napolitano said. The facilities that sort recycling sell it to buyers in bales. But there are fewer buyers out there interested in bales that contain foil than there are buyers eager to accept all-can bundles. “If you’re operating a sorting facility and no one wants to buy aluminium foil from you… then you’re not going to accept aluminium foil in your program,” she added.

Can You Recycle Aluminium Foil?

Additionally, not all sorting facilities are equally well-equipped. At Sims, which is the largest mixed recycling processor in the U.S. and serves the entire city of New York, the sorting line and machinery allows for teeny tiny bits of metal to be separated out from everything else. Foil collected from recycling doesn’t need to be any certain size or shape to make it into the correct bundle, and small bits of foil don’t cause contamination elsewhere. But for other facilities, small aluminium scraps are unlikely to end up recycled.

“At many recycling facilities, items that are smaller than two inches fall through and end up with the glass,” Napolitano said, and “that metal might not be recovered.”

How to Recycle Foil

Because of the sorting size limitation, some municipalities request that foil be crunched up into bundles larger than 2 inches in diameter. Others have stringent requirements for cleanliness. Yet others will take whatever you’ve got.

If you’re in New York City, recycling any aluminium product is as easy as tossing it in your bin and making sure it gets to the curb for pick-up. It doesn’t have to be balled up, it doesn’t have to be a certain size, and it doesn’t even have to be particularly clean. “Just give it a little rinse,” said Diana Galka, a recycling and sustainability coordinator for the New York Department of Sanitation.

In New York, there can be bits of stuck food, grease residue, and/or crumbs on your foil and it can still be easily recycled, as the smelter the aluminium is destined for will burn off any impurities. “As long as there’s no half-lasagna still in that food tray,” clarified Galka. (Super-heavy food remains can cause the sorting machines to struggle and gunk things up.)

Again, though, cities elsewhere in the country may require different levels of clean for recycled foil, because of variations in their processing and storage capacities. Before recycling aluminium (or anything else) be sure to look up the guidelines for your area.

Why Recycle Aluminium Foil?

Aside from all the general environmental reasons its good to recycle (reducing landfill waste, the inherent limit to the amount of raw materials available on Earth, the impact of constantly making new stuff all the time), we need more aluminium in the supply chain ASAP. There is an ongoing aluminium shortage that’s only likely to get worse as we move away from fossil fuels and toward electrified energy and vehicles.

“We’re desperate for it,” said Napolitano. Right now, the biggest problem in NYC aluminium recycling is having enough of the stuff to appease buyers’ demands. In recent years, plastic recycling has run into the opposite issue: the old buyers don’t want it anymore, so much of it is getting landfilled. Not so with aluminium. “We’ve been recycling metals for so much longer than plastic has even existed,” Napolitano said. “It’s a far more established market. It’s stabler.”

The need for metals, aluminium included, is only going to become more pressing as we try to mitigate and address climate change. Because of how lightweight it is, aluminium is a primary component of electric vehicle construction. It is a useful facet of some batteries and electricity transmission systems, and can be part of the strategy to electrify our energy grid.

The only better option than recycling aluminium foil, Napolitano said, is re-using it. Just because you CAN recycle aluminium, doesn’t mean you should swap out all your re-usable containers with foil rolls. And just because the recycling system for aluminium works better than it does for plastic, doesn’t mean you are environmentally absolved if you substitute every “disposable” water bottle with a La Croix can. “Replacing a single-use item with a single-use item is not a solution.”