Q. Dear Umbra,

I usually buy recycled aluminum foil, but I’m wondering: Is most foil made from recycled aluminum, and is the recycled labeling just a way to charge more? I know making aluminum from scratch is more expensive, and most aluminum cans on the shelf are recycled, yes? Are there other products that are almost always made from recycled materials?


A. Dearest JM,

When I was a wee lass, I saved up my allowance for weeks to send away for what was advertised as an “Authentic Rock from the Planet Venus!” I tore open the box eagerly, only to discover an ordinary chunk that looked suspiciously like one of my dad’s charcoal briquettes. I learned early the pain of being suckered, and vowed to use a much more discriminating eye for shopping from then on. I hear echoes of that incident in your letter: the sneaking suspicion that someone has taken your commendable desire to buy eco-friendly products and exploited it.

While that certainly does happen (greenwashing, anyone?), I don’t think your aluminum foil purchases make you a sucker, JM. It’s true that aluminum is highly (and basically infinitely) recyclable, and also that making the stuff from virgin materials is more expensive. That’s why, yes, the average aluminum can contains 70 percent recycled material, according to the Aluminum Association, an industry group, with about 40 percent coming from postconsumer content. (That postconsumer part is important, by the way; we’ll get to that in a minute.) It’s harder to find numbers on the recycled content in your average roll of foil, but I did turn up one estimate from a few years back stating that 25 to 40 percent of a “regular” foil roll is recycled pre-consumer material.

Still, I’d encourage you to continue buying the 100-percent recycled stuff if you can — for foil as well as any other product — for so many reasons. Recycled content saves natural resources, so we can mine fewer metals, cut down fewer trees, and tap less petroleum. It uses less energy to produce, sometimes dramatically so; recycled aluminum can be whipped up with 95 percent less power than virgin aluminum. Recycled material slashes pollution and saves water, too. And let’s not forget it prevents our consumer castoffs from languishing away in a landfill.

So you can see the environmental benefits of recycling as much stuff as possible — and we need to support that process at both ends, not just by recycling our waste but also by buying products made from recycled materials. Remember, the recycling market is a business: Recyclers do their thing to make money off our old bottles and cans, not (only) out of the goodness of their hearts. Voting with our dollars for recycled products increases demand, helping to build a steady market for such materials. And your picking 100-percent recycled foil over standard, partially recycled foil sends a message to foil-makers everywhere that we want a greener option for covering our leftover potatoes. Sometimes recycled products do cost a bit more, it’s true, but I say the premium is worth it if your budget allows.

Discriminating consumer that you are, JM, I also encourage you to read the fine print on any recycled items before you buy. You’re looking for the highest percentage of postconsumer recycled content possible — that is, made from old products that have already been used and discarded. We’re talking plastic soda bottles, steel bean cans, newspapers, that kind of thing. Pre-consumer recycled content comes from manufacturing scraps. Let me be clear: They’re both good. But postconsumer materials are most likely to have been diverted from a landfill, plus they help build up that recycling market we’ve been discussing. Manufacturing scraps are usually recycled anyway, so your purchase of a product made with pre-consumer recycled content has less of an impact.

Finally, yes, there are several consumer products that you can be confident contain a significant portion of recycled materials. Steel cans (what we colloquially call “tin” cans) are usually at least 25 percent recycled, if not almost entirely so, and other steel products (car parts, bikes, building materials) are also good bets. “Pulp” containers, such as cardboard egg cartons, paperboard (like cereal boxes), and some plastic bottles also stand a good chance of containing some recycled content. Glass, another recycle-forever material, is also often reborn as new bottles and jars; one U.K. nonprofit reports that bottles range from 29 to 71 percent recycled glass. If that’s not the excuse you need to enjoy one of this season’s delectable pumpkin beers — if you’re not going the growler route, of course — I don’t know what is.