Whether as yogurt lids, soda cans, tetra-pack coatings or chocolate packaging – aluminium can be found everywhere. The material is also very popular for wrapping food, grilling or baking at home. It was discovered as early as the beginning of the 19th century and was mainly used for industrial purposes at that time. 100 years later, aluminium foil was developed and has been traded as a packaging material since 1913. Today, it is hard to imagine the food industry without it.
Not so long ago, we also used it to wrap our chocolates. You may still find some of them in shops, because such a change takes time, and we didn’t have enough foil for all the bars right from the start. We are all the happier that the first container exclusively filled with NatureFlex wrapped chocolate has recently arrived in Hamburg.
In this blog post, we would like to tell you a bit more about why we switched and why we hope that many other companies will do the same. So let’s talk about the main reason to avoid aluminium foil in the food industry and in our households: sustainability.
Environmental impact of aluminium
Aluminium is extracted from the ore bauxite, most of which is found in the tropical belt. Trees and vegetation have to be removed in order to reach the ore, which lies close to the surface. This is why the mining of aluminium often goes hand in hand with the destruction of rainforests. The mined bauxite is then mixed with a caustic soda solution and heated to dissolve the aluminium components from the rest. The waste product of this process is so-called red mud, a toxic substance that can contain chemicals as well as heavy metals such as lead and chromium. This mud should actually be disposed of in special landfills. In reality, however, things look different. Often the red mud is fed into rivers and lakes, where it can destroy entire ecosystems.
Another negative factor is the high energy consumption in aluminium extraction. As the German public broadcaster ARD reports, the production of one tonne of aluminium requires an average of 15,000 kWh of electricity. This corresponds to the amount of electricity consumed by a two-person household over the course of five years. In order to have enough electricity available, new power plants or dams are often built near the production site, which in turn mean a considerable intervention in nature. As the Federal Environment Agency reports, the expansion of infrastructure within rainforest areas also has an impact on illegal deforestation. The construction of roads makes it easier for illegal loggers to reach remote areas and transport the felled wood.
So far, the environmental impact does not look very good. But what about recycling and reuse? Isn’t aluminium infinitely recyclable?
The afterlife of aluminium
In purely theoretical terms, aluminium is actually almost 100 percent recyclable. Using recycled aluminium also saves up to 95 percent energy compared to the initial production. For this to be possible in practice, however, aluminium would have to be perfectly separated in the recycling process. This is because the different metal mixtures in which it occurs, cannot all be recycled together. In addition, recycling rates would have to be improved in general. According to the ARD’s “Tagesschau”, the recycling rate for the yellow bin, which contains recyclable packaging material, e.g. yoghurt pots, detergent bottles and therefore also aluminium foil, was just 17 percent when it came to traceable recycling within Germany. Everything else was separated out, incinerated or exported abroad for further recycling.
In the case of industrial use of aluminium, these figures are somewhat different and reuse is often easier. But especially food packaging containing the material performs very poorly here.
It can therefore be stated: aluminium foil cannot really be used with a clear conscience. Nor is disposable plastic a better solution for chocolate packaging. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily easy to find alternatives. You can read more about why and which criteria they have to fulfil here.
NatureFlex – why do we like it so much?
For us, it was therefore a huge success when we finally found a suitable, more environmentally friendly form of packaging and were actually able to use it for our production. At the beginning of our operations this was not even possible. Our sales manager Julia explains: “In the old factory, the machines were only designed for aluminium foil. With the construction of our own chocolate factory, we are now more flexible.” Therefore, in fall 2020, we switched to the so-called NatureFlex film. This is a compostable film made of wood pulp produced by the Japanese company Futamura. The raw material for the film, the wood fibre, comes from sustainable, certified forestry and the film decomposes in about 50 days.
Another very important factor in our decision was that the film is excellently suited for the food industry. It protects our bars from moisture, prevents fat from escaping (often a problem with chocolate and paper packaging) and preserves the flavor. After an initial testing phase, we immediately ordered more. Due to the long delivery times, we had to resort to aluminium foil for a short time, but have now switched completely to cellulose foil – a big step for us and the chocolate revolution.
Unfortunately, there is one major drawback to this great packaging alternative. Although the film is compostable, disposal via the organic waste bin is currently prohibited in Germany according to the organic waste ordinance. One of the reasons given is that biodegradable plastics are of no use for further recycling into biogas or compost, as they ferment poorly and contain fewer nutrients. Therefore, they should currently be disposed of in the recycling bin. While it is true that materials made from cellulose produce less biogas than, for example, food waste, we believe that disposal in the yellow bag makes even less sense, as it is not a material that can be melted down and recycled like plastic. A ban on disposal in the organic waste bin could also inhibit the further development of such biodegradable materials and make companies resort to disposable plastics and the like again. Our conclusion: the waste infrastructure in Germany needs to change so that NatureFlex can also be disposed of in the organic waste bin!
A step in the right direction
To sum it up: the search for, production and establishment of environmentally friendly alternatives is not always easy, but it is urgently necessary. Especially for smaller companies like us, it is often complicated or costly to switch to new packaging materials. And even if the changeover works, implementation can falter in other places. But in our opinion, the important thing is to act and to take the first step. To move slowly but constantly in the right direction – and ideally to inspire many other companies and institutions to do the same. We need a rethinking process, not only in the packaging industry, but along the entire supply chain – from production to disposal – so that disposable plastic, aluminium and the like really do become a thing of the past.