hands kneading dough

The Environmental Impact of Common Baking Materials

Week 35

Most weeks of my Tiny Waste Resolution have had a pretty narrow focus. This week, however, I decided to go a little broader and cover all the common baking materials in one go, since I don't use any of these materials on a daily basis and they don't need require regular replacing. So, the goal here was to cover everything that comes up while baking, and slowly shift towards their sustainable alternatives.

Aluminum Foil

When I started working on this post, I thought aluminum foil would be the most environmentally-friendly part of the baking world, since it is infinitely recyclable. However, a quick internet search taught me that's not necessarily the case. I'll briefly touch on a few points, but for a more in depth look, read this article from Carbon Companion.

For starters, aluminum production has a high carbon footprint and is, in fact, responsible for 2.5% of the total CO2 emissions. This is caused by the extraction and refining process, the high levels of energy required in production, and since most aluminum comes from China, shipping. Additional concerns include toxicity, water use, and water pollution in the refining and production process. Oh, and aluminum is a non-renewable resource, which means we can't make any more once it runs out.

It seems aluminum can only redeem itself when it's recycled, which requires 5% of the energy needed to refine the original ore. Unfortunately, according to the EPA, "In 2018, the total recycling rate of aluminum containers and packaging, which includes beverage containers, food containers, foil and other aluminum packaging, was 34.9 percent." The same year, 2.7 million tons of aluminum were sent to landfills.

End of life: Remove food residue, shape aluminum foil into a ball, and recycle with metals.

Plastic Cling Wrap

Plastic wrap must be a pretty standard kitchen staple since, in 2020, 5.3 million Americans used 10 or more rolls. Plastic wrap, like all plastics, are made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, which is harmful for two reasons: manufacturing generates significant pollution and the product is not biodegradable. As Sciencing.com put it, "they are difficult to produce and nearly impossible to get rid of once produced". Instead of biodegrading, plastic breaks down into tiny micro-plastics that litter our soil, our waterways, and even our air.

End of life: Plastic cling wrap is not recyclable and should be thrown in the trash.

Parchment Paper

Parchment paper is paper that has been coated with silicone that proveds non-stick properties. Silicone comes from silicon, a naturally derived element most often found in sand. One common problem with parchment paper is that it is typically bleached, which means it requires extra processing (so extra water and energy) and contaminates both the product and the environment with chlorine.

End of life: Parchment paper shouldn't be put in recycling, since it almost always has unremovable food residue. However, unbleached parchment paper can be composted.

Wax Paper

Wax paper is paper that has been coated with either paraffin or soybean wax. Paraffin wax is derived from petroleum, a non-renewable crude oil.

End of life: Wax paper cannot be recycled. However, some brands can be composted. Wax paper should not go in your compost if it is covered in paraffin (petroleum) wax, but it is safe if covered in soybean wax.

Cooking Spray

Cooking spray, while convenient, is an aerosol. Every time you spritz an aerosol, you raise your carbon footprint because they contain hydrocarbon and compressed gasses. And according to an MIT study, they may be altering rainfall. "While it is true that total precipitation change is controlled by average global temperature change, ... our research shows that aerosols have significantly impacted the distribution of precipitation change around the world since preindustrial times," said Chien Wang, a senior research scientist at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

End of life: Empty the can, remove the plastic lid, and recycle somewhere that accepts aerosols.

How can I be more sustainable while baking?

In my next post, I'll give you 10 Low-Waste Baking Tips. And later this week, I'll show you how to Make a Beeswax Wrap, which is a great substitute for plastic cling wrap.

10 Low-Waste Baking Tips →