Is Aluminum Foil Biodegradable?

In this brief review we will be discussing the topic “is aluminum foil biodegradable?”. We will be highlighting the multiple use of aluminum foil and how its overuse or as a replacement for plastic is affecting the health of our environment.

We will also be discussing the type of materials that can be used instead of aluminum foil that serves the same purpose.

Is aluminum foil biodegradable

The answer to this question is a straight No, aluminum foils are one among the widely used household material that is also not biodegradable. Though it is made from the widely available raw material on earth, it does not disintegrate back to its initial form as it is not easily biodegradable. 

But with little effort there is an alternative way by which aluminum can be handled. This is by the process called oxidation in landfill that allows for easy breakdown of aluminum foil. Otherwise, aluminum foil takes a longer time, almost 400 years, for it to completely break down by natural processes.

When compared with plastic material aluminum foil is even more hazardous to our environment as its production requires tons of energy from the burning of coal. Even though we are using earth’s aluminum which is the most widely available material after oxygen and silicon, the use of other raw materials such as coal, pose a threat to our environment. 

Aluminum foil that ends up in landfill can be washed away into water or soil where it causes harmful effects to fishes and animals. The pieces of aluminum foils get stuck in the fish’s gills causing difficulty in breathing and possible death. 

What is most special about aluminum foil?

Aluminum foil is widely used in many household activities thinking that it is better than plastic. Either as a packaging material or an insulating material, its use is irresistable. It doesn’t degrade easily and acts as a total barrier to light and oxygen, hence people mostly prefer aluminum foil. 

The following are some of the applications of aluminum foil.

  • Food packaging
  • Pharmaceutical packaging
  • Baking sheets
  • Grilling vegetable

Its high resistance to heat and ability to trap moisture is what attracted the bakers and the people engaged in outdoor grilling. Of the aluminum foils that are produced today almost 75% is used in cosmetic, food packaging, and chemical products, the rest 25% only goes to industrial application. This is the versatility of aluminum foil which is an easy go material for one’s day to day life.

Aluminum foil has many properties that are better than plastics and hence find wide application in the food and pharmaceutical industry.

How does the most abundant material affect our environment?

With the overproduction and overuse of aluminum foils, scientists are warning of a potential threat to humans from the metals that leach into our food. Some acidic foods such as lemon juice and tomato can react with aluminum liner leaching out chemicals into our food. With its regular use, aluminum foil can accumulate in our body and cause potential damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and bones.

Recent studies have also found a decline in male fertility owing to the finding of traces of aluminum in their semen. With the overuse of aluminum foil in the last several years there is a significant rise of infertility in men as more the semen is contaminated with aluminum less is the sperm count.

Researchers are also finding a decrease in bumblebee population attributed to the effect of aluminum. Since it is a known neurotoxin, intake of large amounts of aluminum affects animal behavior and eventually death.  

Recyclability and reuse of aluminum foil

Aluminum foil can be effectively recycled. The recycling process uses far less energy than that needed for its extraction from raw materials. However, the only and an important disadvantage to this is that recycling centers do not take foiled aluminum foils. 

Since almost 75% of aluminum foils produced are used in packaging, it is contaminated with oil and food materials. When used for baking purposes, the food material sticks hard and does not remove easily. This poses a problem for the recycling center and the used aluminum foil ends up in trash.

The better way is to clean your aluminum foil before you give it to the recycling center. Since it is dishwasher friendly, you can toss it with your other kitchen items for cleaning.

However, when you do not have a recycle facility, there are other ways by which aluminum foils can be reused thus limiting its pipeline up in landfills. Let’s discuss more on its reusability through the following points.

  • Cleaning the silver wares by treating it with aluminum foils and soda. 
  • Cleaning the grills by using aluminum foil as a scrub.
  • Keep the scissors sharp by cutting folded pieces of aluminum foil with it a few times.
  • Improving the quality of light during a photoshoot by keeping aluminum foil as a reflector.
  • A better way to clean your iron box plate is by just running it over the foil a couple of times.
  • A good reuse of aluminum foil is in the garden, where it can deter pests and increase plant vigor.

Aluminum foil is dishwasher safe and it can be reused many times either as a cleaning material or for packaging purposes. Hence with its proper recycle and reuse, aluminum foil waste can be controlled in a significant way.

Can aluminum foil be replaced with other materials?

When we start thinking about what humans were using before the aluminum foils were invented or manufactured. We can get a lot of ideas and alternative ways to develop our own eco-friendly packing materials.

Cedar wraps are one such material that is obtained from western red cedar and is used for grilling. What more is that it infuses food with cedar aroma and impart a woody flavor to the meat and vegetables. 

It is naturally occurring and can be reused if you mind the already infused flavor. 

For baking sheets we already have a heat resistant material that is very durable and reusable. It is none other than our silicone. It can also be used as  food cover or storage containers in place of aluminum foils. 

Silicone is already FDA approved food material packing as it is an inert material and does not react with any food items. Hence they are reusable and affordable.

Parchment paper is also another alternative for aluminum foil for baking purposes. However, care should be taken when you buy parchment paper because bleached parchment paper is toxic as they release chemicals when healter. Go for a safe unbleached one.

Muslin cloth made from cotton and silk is another such material that is very eco-friendly. It is widely used for storing dry foods and can be reused any number of times.

There are many more in the list which can be substituted for aluminum foil. In villages of rural India, people mostly use banana leaves or coconut leaves. They have been using it for many years since aluminum foil was invented. 

These leaves not only give a better natural replacement for aluminum foil but also imbibes aromatic flavor to the food.

Conclusion

Frequently asked question (FAQs): Is aluminum foil biodegradable?

How long does it take aluminum foil to decompose?

Aluminum foil takes hundreds of years to decompose. Though less than plastic, it is still hazardous to our environment. These remain in landfill for a long time as naturally occurring microbes cannot degrade aluminum foil.

Is aluminum foil bad for the environment?

To some extent aluminum foil is bad for our environment as it uses a lot of energy for its making. This energy is obtained from our natural resources such as burning coal. 

Moreover, the aluminum foil is not biodegradable and remains in its stable form for many years. These when end up in water bodies affect fishes and water animals as they tend to clog the gills of fishes causing a detrimental effect.

Can Aluminum foil be recycled?

Aluminum foil can be recycled efficiently and its recycling process utilizes very less energy compared to the making of aluminum foil. However, the main issue with its recyclability is that most of the household uses aluminum foil for food wrapping and soils them with oil and food particles. 

Hence most recycling centers do not accept this and all the used aluminum foil ends up in trash. 

Is foil wrapper biodegradable or nonbiodegradable?

Aluminum foil is non-biodegradable and remains in its stable for hundreds of years. Foil wrapper cannot be degraded by any biological process and it may take longer time for any microorganism to even start the degradation process. Hence they stay in landfill or are scattered as waste in ocean or land affecting animals and humans.

Is aluminum foil a good insulator?

Aluminum foil is an excellent insulator and works better than cotton or paper. Moreover it is a thermal insulator contributing a great amount for the betterment of the global environment problem.

What are the biodegradable alternatives for aluminum foil?

There are many naturally available sources that can be used for baking, grilling, and packaging. Some of them include cedar wraps which are obtained from cedar trees,muslin cloth made from cotton and silk, parchment papers for baking, and many edible leaves of trees such as banana and coconut.

These are not only biodegradable but also obtained from renewable sources and can be reused many times. It can also be composted when its use is over.

References

Aluminum Foil, How products are made. http://www.madehow.com/Volume-1/Aluminum-Foil.html

Rosseland BO, Eldhuset TD, Staurnes M. Environmental effects of aluminium. Environ Geochem Health. 1990 Mar;12(1-2):17-27. doi: 10.1007/BF01734045.

Claudio L. Our food: packaging & public health. Environ Health Perspect. 2012;120(6):A232-A237. doi:10.1289/ehp.120-a232

Shaikh S, Yaqoob M, Aggarwal P. An overview of biodegradable packaging in food industry. Curr Res Food Sci. 2021;4:503-520. Published 2021 Jul 30. doi:10.1016/j.crfs.2021.07.005

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