Dear Recyclebank: You’ve said that aluminum gum and cigarette foil cannot be recycled. What if it’s put into aluminum cans before being put in the recycling bin? The smelting process reaches high enough temps to burn off any impurities, so what’s the problem with putting gum and cigarette foil wrappers in the aluminum cans? –Greg I.
Dear Greg: While foil-paper gum wrappers are made of two recyclable materials, they aren’t considered recyclable. The truth of the matter is that sneaking a gum wrapper into one can out of the roughly 25,000 cans that would make up an 800 pound bale won’t dramatically impact the recycling process. In this case, the contaminants you’re individually adding make up less than one percent of the total bale. Still, putting gum wrappers in cans isn’t the best way to help increase material reuse.
Mixed foil-paper products like gum and cigarette wrappers don’t take much heat to burn up. Because the material is so thin, you could easily melt it down using a regular pocket lighter. Putting a gum wrapper inside a soda can would add a nearly imperceptible amount of aluminum to the final product, and would add approximately the same amount of cast off during the recycling process. When melting down metals to make ingots, contaminants like anodized aluminum, glue, and paper burn up and rise to the top of the molten metal. This cast off is known as slag or dross and is an unusable byproduct of the recycling process. As the number of wrappers added to a bale of aluminum increases, the product will produce more slag/dross.
Adding foil paper to regular aluminum also affects the quality of the recycled aluminum, since the material you are hiding inside of other items is of much lower quality than the aluminum can. Certain recycled aluminum products, like electronic circuitry, require a very high level of purity. Recyclers trying to sell subpar or mixed materials will earn less for the poorer quality product, which reduces their economic imperative to offer recycling. For recycling companies to be able to afford recycling, the market value of their recyclable material must be more than the cost to process it at a MRF.
Hiding gum wrappers inside cans may be the gateway to bad recycling habits, and other materials can be far more damaging to the process. Potato chip bags, for instance, also contain aluminum, but are laminated with polypropylene. According to Frito-Lay this design reduces product weight by 25%, thus prevents 6 million pounds of material from entering the landfill, in effect reducing consumer consumption of raw materials as a tradeoff for the product’s ability to be recycled. Putting items like chip bags in aluminum cans not only adds larger amounts of non-recyclable material to the recycling process, but it also likely introduces grease, another troublesome contaminant.
A local scrap metal company advised Recyclebank that putting small pieces of regularly accepted metal (like pure aluminum or steel) inside of larger pieces of metal, like putting nails inside of a coffee can, or a cat food can inside of a soup can, is acceptable. Since all the materials are recyclable, the recycler’s bale will hold its value, and no contamination would be added to the process. Don’t worry about sorting steel from aluminum, as recyclers use magnets to separate ferrous from nonferrous metals. Just makes sure the recycling hauler you use accepts the item.
In 2010, Wrigley, a subsidiary of Mars (the highest grossing candy company in the world) committed to transitioning from aluminum foil to paper wrappers. The aluminum saved by this switch is equivalent to preventing 60 million cans from ending up in landfills each year. Still, if your favorite pack of gum comes wrapped in foil-paper and you can’t bear to change brands, you may want to consider getting a zero waste box from TerraCycle for your home or office. Once you’ve saved up a nice stockpile, send it back to TerraCycle, where it will be deconstructed and recycled for you.
Conserve Energy Future
Junk Metal and Recycling Directory
Waste Management World