Is Aluminum Biodegradable?

In this brief discussion we will be answering the question “is aluminum biodegradable and answering some of the relevant questions regarding its biodegradability, its recyclability and the chemical nature that impacts its durability and strength. 

We will further discuss the health issue associated with the aluminum waste and how its affecting the living beings on the earth.

Is aluminum biodegradable?

Aluminum products made from the abundantly found raw material on our earth are not biodegradable. This is because aluminum is mainly distributed in the earth’s crust where it is safe and is not in contact with the living being on the surface of earth.  

When aluminum products are discarded, they remain unaffected for a long period of time. It is estimated that aluminum tins and other products can last for 100 to 500 years and slowly but gradually cause harmful effects to our environment.  

One question that spurs up in our mind is why is it so difficult or expensive to utilize the already available aluminum found in our earth crust? The answer is that most aluminum raw material exists as hydrates of aluminum which means it is covered with water molecules. Not only this, it is contaminated with other earthly elements such as silica, iron oxide, and titania.

In order to extract aluminum, it has to undergo several processes such as refining and smelting. This is a high energy consuming process and most of the energy is utilized by burning of coal which is an non-renewable source of energy.

Why is aluminum harmful to our environment?

Aluminum has a widespread application and is a very strong material making it one of the best for any home appliances such as pressure cookers, containers, packaging, and for making equipment. Its resistance to heat and ability to withstand pressure is what makes it most preferable for cooking appliances. 

Aluminum is a very reactive metal and easily reacts with oxygen much faster than other metals to form a thin layer of oxide around it. Once the layer of oxide is formed around it, it becomes inert and does not react with anything. 

This layer of oxygen is what provides the strength to aluminum and prevents it from corrosion. Thus the oxidation layer around aluminum prevents it from heat, pH, and from corrosion. Because of these reasons, over use of aluminum for commercial and industrial application can be seen which is posing a threat to the living creatures on the earth.

Researchers have discovered aluminum contamination in living things such as bee’s brains where the toxicity level was in the range of 13 to 200 ppm which is drastically high compared to the normal limit of 3 ppm for the human brain. 

The effect of aluminum within our body is still a debate where one set of research argues that aluminum, when present in our body, has high propensity for biochemical reaction and is associated with several diseases including cancer. 

While other work related to aluminum functionality in our body suggest that since aluminum is not required for any biological process and its long presence in our earth has not caused any detrimental effects, aluminum is not involved in any biochemical reactions.

However, an in depth study has revealed that aluminum accumulates in organs such as kidneys, brain, lungs, and liver where they affect the functionality of calcium in our body. Though many more studies are yet to reveal its significant effect, the preliminary results have proven the toxic effects of aluminum in our body. 

The main environmental damage that aluminum can pose is from its debris such as formed by the use of aluminum foils. With the overfilling in the landfill, many wastes end up in the ocean where these debris clog the gills of fishes causing a detrimental effect to ocean life. 

         Photo Courtesy: iStock. Bauxite ore from which aluminum is extracted

Then how can we deal with aluminum issues?

The best way to deal with aluminum use is to switch to an alternative product that is much more eco friendly. The table below shows several alternatives to aluminum for regular use.

Aluminum productsEco-friendly alternatives
Aluminum foil Muslin clothCedar wrapsParchment paper
Storage containerGlass containersSteel containerSilicone storage productsCardboard carton
Soda CansGlass can
Kitchen cooking utensilsSteel, ceramic, clay, cast iron cooking utensils

As can be seen from the above table, there are lots of replacement options for aluminum. However, aluminums that is used for heavy equipment such as the body of aircraft will stay for a longer time without affecting our environment. These are also discarded or reused properly and hence are not a threat to our environment. 

Can aluminum products be recycled?

The turning of bauxite to aluminum is an energy consuming process and has numerous environmental impacts. Since the bauxite is obtained from earth’s crust, the large area of mining over a long period of time has causes severe issues for the natural habitat of plants and animals. The impacts are many such as high carbon emissions, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss. 

Hence the better option is to use recycled aluminum as an eco-friendly option. Aluminum recyclability rate is very high. Like steel, aluminum does not lose its structural and chemical integrity after recycling. The quality of aluminum remains the same and there is no downcycling. 

Almost 75% of the aluminum that is used today is obtained from its recyclability. So if we are using mostly recyclable aluminum then it will not be an issue for the health of our environment. Moreover, recycling of aluminum is an energy efficient process as the raw material is uncombined or not contaminated with other minerals and pure form of aluminum is melted down and remade without losing its quality.

Some shops even accept used or wasted aluminum kitchen utensils where they pay a certain price for the trash. Thus the people are encouraged to sell their old and withered aluminum products so that it does not end up in landfills. 

Photo Courtesy: iStock. Aluminum wastes

Conclusion

In this short report we have discussed the question “is aluminum biodegradable?” and answered some of the important questions related to the use and reuse of aluminum. We have further discussed the potential of aluminum recyclability and how this can prove an eco-friendly solution to the current pollution issues. 

On another note, the debate over its health issues are also discussed here where researchers are suggesting an alternative for the use of aluminum.

Frequently asked question (FAQs): Is aluminum biodegradable?

Is Aluminum environmentally sustainable?

Aluminum is made from widely available resources in the earth crust. However it is not present in its pure form and needs to undergo a process that is not energy efficient and increases carbon footprint. 

To some extent, overuse of aluminum is hazardous to our environment. Discarded aluminum foils remain in landfill for hundreds of years and may sometimes end up in oceans where it is detrimental to fishes.

Can aluminum foil be composted?

Aluminum foil cannot be composted as they are not biodegradable. Instead these materials are very strong due to the presence of a layer of oxygen that makes it inert and durable.Most of the aluminum that ends up in landfill stays there for hundreds of years and adds volume to the pile. 

Why is aluminum bad for the environment?

The production of aluminum requires a lot of energy which is affecting our non-renewable resources. Since aluminum does not decompose, it is not used for composting and remains on our land unaltered. Thin foils of aluminum cause harmful effects if they are eaten by animals or birds. 

What happens to aluminum foil in landfill?

In landfill, aluminum stays for more than 100 years and causes problems by generating undesirable heat, leaching out chemicals or liquids, and releasing harmful gasses. 

Is aluminum better than plastic for the environment?

Aluminum is more eco-friendly than plastics. This is due to its high recyclability and there is no downcycling. In the case of plastic, with every recycling, the quality of plastic is lost and more raw materials need to be added. Currently overy 75% aluminum that we use today is obtained by its recycling. This is not the case with plastic which is non-biodegradable and leaches chemicals when burnt.

Can aluminum be recycled?

Aluminum can be recycled very effectively. The advantages of recycling is that it requires far less energy as aluminum is already present in its pure form. The fuel and energy required for several steps of extracting aluminum from bauxite is saved when we recycle aluminum. 

Furthermore, the recycling efficiency of aluminum is great and hence the recycling rate is also high. With each recycling the product quality is not lost and aluminum can be recycled any number of times without affecting its strength and durability. People are encouraged to sell their old and used aluminum cookwares for recycling.

What are alternatives to aluminum foil?

There are many alternatives to aluminum products. Steel can replace aluminum for cookwares. Most widely used clay pot has the strength and durability for its use as cookware. For many storage containers, clay pots, glass jars can be used. Even the use of aluminum foils can be replaced with cloths and parchment papers.

References

Velasco E, Nino J. Recycling of aluminium scrap for secondary Al-Si alloys. Waste Manag Res. 2011 Jul;29(7):686-93. doi: 10.1177/0734242X10381413. 

Capuzzi, S.; Timelli, G. Preparation and Melting of Scrap in Aluminum Recycling: A Review. Metals 2018, 8, 249. https://doi.org/10.3390/met8040249

Exley C. The toxicity of aluminium in humans. Morphologie. 2016 Jun;100(329):51-5. doi: 10.1016/j.morpho.2015.12.003. 

Exley C. What is the risk of aluminium as a neurotoxin? Expert Rev Neurother. 2014 Jun;14(6):589-91. doi: 10.1586/14737175.2014.915745. 

Calder V, Stark T. Aluminum Reactions and Problems in Municipal Solid Waste Landfills. ASCE Library. 2010. 14. https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)HZ.1944-8376.0000045

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