Stop Throwing Out Your Aluminum Foil

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Christine Han)

Can you recycle aluminum foil? The short answer is yes; the long answer is maybe. The biggest barrier to recycling aluminum foil is not what it’s made of — because the material itself is 100 percent recyclable — it’s that your foil is usually covered in food.

Historically, recycling processing centers have not been able to recycle products mixed with organic material (read: caked-on lasagna, oil splatters, and cupcake icing) because it would be too cost-intensive to clean stuff off before starting the recycling process. So for a long time you weren’t allowed to put your foil in with your aluminum cans, even though it’s made of the same thing and just as recyclable.

But there’s new news! As we’ve all become more interested in living greener, recycling processes have evolved to the point where many recycling facilities are taking used aluminum foil in your regular curbside recycling bin!

How Do You Know If You Can Recycle Aluminum Foil?

The biggest deciding factor in whether you can recycle aluminum foil is actually where you live — because it’s your local processing facility that has (or doesn’t have) the technology to take on lightly soiled aluminum foil.

You can search the very cool Recycling Locator on Earth911 to see what the rules are in your area or look on your county’s website (most are very clear about what they recycle).

Here in Brooklyn, our curbside recycling program will take any aluminum foil and trays unless they’re “heavily soiled.” In my hometown of Arlington, Virginia, the rules say you have to clean the foil off before putting it in the recycling bin. And actually, in every town I searched, including the most far-flung ones I could think of, the regular curbside recycling programs take aluminum foil now. Most places just make you clean it first.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

Once you’ve cleaned it, however, pause a beat before you throw it into recycling! Even though we tend to think of aluminum foil as a one-time-use item, you can actually use clean foil again and again. It’s non-porous and you can flatten it out, even once it’s crumpled, and use it a second time to cover a bowl or in the oven. If you can get it clean, you might as well reuse it. So perhaps it doesn’t even matter if it can go in the recycling!

Some Fun Ways to Use Aluminum Foil