Aluminium Foil and Resource Efficiency

From foil wrappers and household foil to semi-rigid foil containers, lids and laminated foil pouches, aluminium foil applications offer a versatile range of packaging solutions to meet today’s sustainability challenges. The physical properties of aluminium foil, such as the absolute barrier effect, lead to more protection and longer shelf-lives for the product contents, as well as better preservation of their nutritional and health benefits. The net result: less food waste and so greater resource efficiency. Also, less use of resources results in a reduction in the overall environmental impact and improved profitability.

In summary: More efficient packaging ultimately saves resources or, in other words, More is Less! The following lists some of the unique characteristics of aluminium foil and gives examples of how these properties provide resource- and energy-efficient solutions.

Barrier: Aluminium foil acts as an absolute barrier to light, gases and moisture providing almost perfect preservation of aroma, flavour and other product characteristics thus protecting product quality. It has a highly efficient barrier function to weight ratio, e.g., for 1 litre of milk packed in a beverage carton, only 1.5 grams of aluminium is sufficient to allow an ambient shelf-life of several months.

By enabling useful life of products for extended periods at room temperature, aluminium foil helps to reduce food waste and then to save the important resources used to produce the food. This also provides energy savings as products can be preserved without the need for refrigeration.

Product to pack ratio: In particular, due to the absolute barrier property even at very low gauges, aluminium foil allows for the development of packaging solutions that are both very efficient and very light. The product to pack ratio of flexible foil packaging is generally very high, potentially 5 to 10 times higher than for rigid packaging used for the same application.

High product to pack ratio means less packaging material is used to protect and deliver the same quantity of product. This also means less energy to transport the packaging whether empty or filled. And at the end of life there is significantly less packaging waste generated

Portion-ability: Foil’s excellent ability to be used alone or in combination with other materials (paper and/or plastic) provides flexibility to easily pack the product (food) into appropriate and convenient portions.

Providing food in appropriate quantities prevents both over-preparation and over-consumption which contribute to food wastage. Portioning also extends the shelf-life of the unprepared food by keeping it packaged and protected.

Material and space efficiency: Aluminium foil can efficiently be laminated with other materials to combine specific properties of several flexible packaging substrates in a complementary way for an improved overall performance and a very limited overall amount of material used. The reduced amount of material used in flexible foil packaging, plus the fact that it is delivered in the form of rolls, leads to more space efficiency during storage and transportation and enables further energy and cost savings.

Mechanical properties: Uniquely light yet strong, foil’s ‘deadfold’ characteristics allows it to wrap products tightly and without any glue or other sealing systems.

For household foil for example, the easy wrapping and reclose-ability helps to prevent food waste through appropriate protection of the goods at home or on-the-go and the possibility to efficiently preserve leftovers.

Thermal conductivity: Aluminium is an excellent conductor of heat and is able to withstand extreme temperatures. Alufoil is ideal for use in autoclaving, heat-sealing and other thermal processes (e.g. retort).

Excellent thermal conductivity minimizes the processing, sealing, chilling and re-heating times, thus saving energy and also ensuring a better protection of the organoleptic and nutritional quality of the food by flattening extreme temperature gradients within the product.

Electrical conductivity: Excellent electrical conductivity of aluminium foil enables high-
precision, contact-free sealing, thus widening the application range for efficient and fast filling technologies.The presence of aluminium foil in a packaging facilitates induction and ultrasonic sealing, saving materials and energy by minimizing the seal area and time.

Reflectivity: Aluminium foil reflects up to 98% of light and infrared heat. Good heat reflectivity saves energy during the cooling or heating of in pack prepared foods.

Multi-mode cooking: The unique combination of thermal, electrical heat transfer allows food to be cooked or re-heated by convection or microwave oven and/or in ‘bain marie’ systems. This flexibility in heating/cooking helps save time and energy during preparation.

Recyclability: Aluminium material is fully recyclable, endlessly, without any loss of quality. Increasing collection and recycling/recovery rates for aluminium foil and aluminium foil packaging means that an equivalent quantity of primary (i.e. virgin) aluminium will not be required by the industry. This represents a significant energy saving as processing recycled aluminium requires up to 95% less energy than the equivalent quantity of primary metal produced from bauxite.In Europe it is assumed that average recycling rate of all aluminium packaging is above 60%. The amount of aluminium packaging recycled greatly depends on the efficiency of the national packaging collection schemes in each European country. For aluminium foil trays and semi-rigid containers, the latest statistics show that the average recycling rate in Europe reaches about 55% thanks to continued work by the industry to promote the value of collection and recycling of aluminium foil packaging. For foil flexible packs, generally having a lower aluminium content since the packaging is often very thin and frequently laminated with plastics or paper, it is also possible to recover the aluminium from the scraps and reclaim it for closed-loop recycling, using specially developed technologies like pyrolysis. In the situations where aluminium foil packaging is not collected separately for recycling and enters an energy recovery process, a significant proportion of the aluminium in the packaging – even the thin gauge foil – can be collected from the bottom ashes for recycling. The part of aluminium which is oxidized during incineration is releasing energy which is recovered and converted to heat and electricity.

Resource Efficiency of aluminium foil packaging: For a given product there are often several effective packaging solutions able to perform the required functions. But some solutions are more resource efficient than others in that they use less resources.

Because of the combination of the unique above properties, aluminium foil packaging supports efficient use of resources and waste minimization throughout the lifecycle of the packed product. Not only does foil packaging help to save important food resources by offering optimised fit-for-purpose solutions with reduced risk of product waste, but it makes a very efficient use of packaging material over its entire life cycle.