You pack your sandwiches with it, wrap your baked potatoes with it, and even use it to bleach your hair at home — but what happens to tin foil once you’re done with it?
I’m sure you already know that most aluminium items can be put in the recycling bin after use.
From drink cans to takeaway containers, aluminium is one of the easiest materials to recycle. This is because the metal can be used to create new items time and time again without losing any of its properties, much like glass can.
But is tin foil recyclable?
In this article, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about tin foil (also known as aluminium foil) and recycling tin foil in the UK, so you can make your home more eco-friendly with every aluminium tin foil sheet you use!
How is tin foil made?
Before we start talking about recycling tin foil, it’s best to get familiar with how this versatile material is made in the first place and what its origins are.
Let’s start with the name – why is it called tin foil when the material is actually made of aluminium metal?
Nowadays, tin foil is just another name for aluminium foil (maybe because the three letters are a lot easier to spell and remember!), but it wasn’t always that way.
Back in the early 20th century, tin foil was actually made of tin. Tin was used as a packaging material in all sorts of items, from cigarette packets to lunchboxes. And while it made for a convenient and durable option for wrapping different items, it also featured a distinctive metallic taste — not exactly the best feature for a packaging material!
So, in the late 1920s, the US Foil Company began developing a cheaper alternative to tin foils and tin packaging, which became an overnight smash hit – the aluminium foil we all know and use to this day. With that in mind, we’ll be using tin and aluminium foil interchangeably during this article.
Aluminium foil is resistant to both freezing and scalding temperatures, compatible with all foods and pharmaceuticals, cost-effective, flexible and non-toxic.
The material is made by first creating molten aluminium casts and then rolling them into slabs of the desired thickness. After that, the sheets are coiled in preparation for the final cold-rolling process.
Cold-rolling requires an additional layer of foil to avoid any breakage. The industry employs rolling mill sensors to get each foil down to the thinness we’re used to, which is usually around 0.1mm to 0.2mm.
It’s hard to tell why the name tin foil has stuck for this long, but what we do know is that due to the abundance of aluminium in nature and its versatility, tin/aluminium foil is going to stay as a useful material in our households.
Can aluminium foil be recycled?
So, is tin foil recyclable in the UK?
The answer is a resounding yes!
Aluminium is generally considered one of the most environmentally sustainable metals, due to its abundance in nature and being a ‘circular material’. On the downside though, like with all mining, it does cause environmental harm, local degradation and releases emissions.
For those not familiar with the circular concept, it means that it can be infinitely reused to create new foil and materials with the same strength, flexibility and versatility as the original. It’s also the same with sustainable stainless steel. Once the initial material has been mined, it can then be used and reused over again.
The process of recycling aluminium items produces only 5% of the greenhouse gasses emitted during its production. This has led to more recycled foil and tins in our homes and a boom in the aluminium recycling industry in recent years.
But just because aluminium can be recycled, that doesn’t mean that recycling foil is always just as easy…
What types of aluminium foil can or can’t be recycled?
Here’s the catch – not all tin foil is the same when it comes to recycling.
In fact, not all wrapping foil marketed as ‘tin foil’ is made of recyclable aluminium. Some foils are made with metallised plastic film instead! Yes, it’s our old friend plastic again.
Generally speaking, you’ll find that kitchen foil, pie trays, takeaway boxes, and chocolate wrapping are made with aluminium. So, you can easily put them in your recycling bin alongside your cans or head over to your local recycling point if your council’s kerbside pickup scheme doesn’t accept tin foil.
Either way, you’ll be able to get rid of them sustainably!
Keep in mind that in order to be recycled, your aluminium foil and cans have to be thoroughly cleaned so they’re free of any food residue, which can ‘contaminate’ the recycling process.
Now, the hard part comes with distinguishing real aluminium foil from plastic films. We recommend doing a quick ‘scrunch test’ to find out if your foil is recyclable or not!
Just scrunch the tin foil into a ball and see if it springs back or if it remains scrunched and wrinkled — a scrunched up foil means aluminium-based foil, so you’ll be able to recycle it without any issues!
What happens after tin foil is recycled?
After your foil has reached your local recycling point, it will be sorted out along with cans and trays, so it can be shipped out to a recycler.
The recycler will usually melt down all aluminium materials together, getting rid of inks and coatings to get back to the base material.
The aluminium slabs and ingots are then rolled once again to create new cans or new foil. Then, in as little as a month, you’ll be able to purchase 100% recycled tin foil at your local supermarket or corner store!
Is tin foil biodegradable?
The next question you might want to ask now you know about tin foil recyclability will probably be whether your aluminium foil is biodegradable or not.
While tin foil makes for the perfect recyclable material, it is not biodegradable.
The material is resistant to all extreme temperatures and incredibly durable, so in normal conditions, it would take a long, long time for aluminium to break down.
Oxidation can make it degrade a lot faster (oxygen is in many ways the number one enemy of aluminium materials), but this is quite unlikely to happen in a normal landfill.
The wrap up on aluminium foil recycling
For the eco-conscious people, you can make sure your home is running sustainably by recycling your tin foil, trays and aluminium cans.
Better yet, reuse your aluminium foil as much as you can. If you’ve used it to cover a bowl in the fridge or wrapped your sandwiches, it’s good to use again as long as it’s not got food on.
I like to give my used aluminium foil a quick rinse or wipe with an eco friendly sponge, let it dry, then fold it up in the kitchen drawer ready to go again as good as new!
Make sure you read this blog post too to see how sustainable aluminium is.
The aluminium material used in tin foil is versatile and flexible enough that you can continue using it in all sorts of other ways too, from Christmas decorations to pot scrubbers!
If you liked that, read more on eco-friendly living…
Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.