We all know that metals are recyclable. That includes steel and aluminium that come into your home in the shape of various food packaging. But what do you do with the tiny bits like beer bottle tops and chocolate and Oxo wraps? The tiny mince pie aluminium bases? Cream Egg wrappers? The rings that break off your cans? Anything really, you let me know what I forgot to mention.
Do you know you can recycle those too? If you've been unwittingly throwing them away because you weren't sure, you've been wasting valuable resource. If you have been diligently putting them in with your recycling, chances are your efforts have been futile as they are too small and will fall through gaps in the recycling conveyor belt and will end up with general waste after all because nobody in those huge plants will be sifting through piles of fallen through bits to sort out individual tiny pieces. Which is a great shame because they are a valuable recycling material and recycling it saves a huge amount of virgin materials as well as energy needed for processing it.
Both steel and aluminium are parts of closed loop systems as they recyclable infinitely, meaning that unlike plastic or paper, they do not lose their quality with recycling. And the environmental cost of repurposing it is about 75% smaller for steel and 95% for aluminium.
We all remember how dirty and polluted steel cities used to be. Apart from them being forced to clean up their act, they brought countless amount of steel into circulation, meaning less need for production of new.
Aluminium is one of the most expensive and potentially most polluting metals to produce. It is extracted from bauxite ore mined at the surface. The open-cast mines cover large areas from which the natural vegetation has to be removed. Extracting it requires huge quantities of electricity. Dams are built across valleys and large areas inundated by the lakes that form behind them, severely disrupting local ecology. It also emits harmful fluorides into the atmosphere, damaging the health of workers as well as the environment. But melting down an aluminium can for re-use requires just 5% of the energy needed to make a new one, and it creates little pollution. So every piece of aluminium that is thrown away is a lost opportunity to save energy and preserve the environment.
But how do you go about recycling it if putting it in loose doesn't work?
What you don’t want to do is mix the steel and aluminium bits together as they are completely different materials requiring different processes. Steel is mostly used in your food tins and beer bottle tops while the rest is likely to be aluminium. But if you’re not sure you can easily tell them apart with a bit of physics in the shape of a magnet. Steel is magnetic while aluminium is not, so if your ordinary fridge magnet doesn’t stick to it, it’s an aluminium bit.
What you do want is a mass of little pieces about the size of a fist – that is big enough to pass the conveyor belt hurdle. With steel, you can just pop your little pieces into an empty
steel can and when it’s about half full, crush it closed, or leave the lid just partially attached when opening and then close it shut when it’s ready to go in your recycling bin. With aluminium, just collect all the pieces in a large pie dish or any kind of jar until you have a piece large enough to wrap them in – like a large Easter egg wrap. Or am I too late with this, are they all eaten?? But you get the idea…
Not all packaging that looks like aluminium foil actually is – some wrappers and crisp packets are actually metallised plastic film and cannot be recycled as foil. You can easily test its recyclability by scrunching it in your hand – if it stays squashed in a ball it is foil and can be added to your recycling. If it bounces back open it is plastic and needs to go in the rubbish bin.
It may not seem like much but every little bit does make a huge difference. It also sounds like a chore, I know, but this may be something kids might enjoy helping with while learning a valuable lesson.
If we could all use a little more materials that can have a closed loop system we will all help the planet immensely so let's all do our bit to keep it going round and round.