Aluminum 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 aluminum 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 aluminum products. Aluminum foil, trays, pans, and take-out containers are ALL eminently recyclable. In theory, any used aluminum can be melted down and remade into just-like-new aluminum items.
In practice though, whether or not you can simply toss aluminum foil into your blue bin (and how to do it correctly) varies based on where you live. Cans are widely accepted in municipal recycling programs across the U.S., but not everywhere accepts foil, said Kara Napolitano, the education coordinator at New York City’s Sims Municipal Recycling facility. 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. Aluminum foil is the maybe,” Napolitano explained.
There are a few reasons aluminum foil might not be accepted for municipal recycling where you live, but the biggest factor is economic. “Aluminum foil is a little less valuable than aluminum 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 aluminum foil from you... then you’re not going to accept aluminum foil in your program,” she added.
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 aluminum 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.”
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 aluminum 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 aluminum 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 and counties elsewhere in the country may require different levels of clean for recycled foil, because of variations in their processing and storage capacities. Before recycling aluminum (or anything else) be sure to look up the guidelines for your area.
Searching the place that you live and “curbside recycling program” will usually yield official information. Alternately, Earth911 has a nifty lookup tool that lets you input your zip code and find where and how to recycle aluminum in your area. If you live somewhere where foils aren’t accepted by your municipality, there may be private drop-off alternatives.
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 aluminum in the supply chain ASAP. There is an ongoing aluminum 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 aluminum 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 aluminum. “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, aluminum included, is only going to become more pressing as we try to mitigate and address climate change. Because of how lightweight it is, aluminum 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.
Because aluminum is one of the few materials in our daily lives that can truly be used and re-used forever, an estimated 75% of the metal ever produced in the U.S. is still in circulation, according to the Aluminum Association. But that number may be falling as consumer aluminum increasingly gets trashed.
Nationwide, the EPA estimates, only about 35% of consumer aluminum was being recycled as of 2018. In NYC, things are even worse. At least 30% of cans go directly into the recycling stream (not counting the ones collected for 5 cent deposit redemption programs). However, only about 15% of aluminum containers and foil end up being recycled, according to the city’s 2017 waste characterization study.
That means a lot of aluminum ends up in landfills, even from the U.S. city arguable best-equipped to recycle it. (Fun fact: there are no landfills in NYC. All of the city’s trash is shipped elsewhere. Some, Galka told me, is sent via train as far away as South Carolina).
So, if you want to get those reclamation and recycling percentages up, if you want to see your scraps become something new, and if you don’t want to send every post-sandwich foil sheet hundreds of miles down the coast: put it in the blue bin.
The only better option than recycling aluminum foil, Napolitano said, is re-using it. Just because you CAN recycle aluminum, doesn’t mean you should swap out all your re-usable containers with foil rolls. And just because the recycling system for aluminum 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.”