The food packaging evolution
Compostable, reusable, and even edible
The plastic package problem
The most common form of food packaging is plastic. It's cheap, it's disposable, it won't break if you drop it, and it ticks the boxes for food safety. Bonus: there's even a recycle symbol on it. Looks can be deceiving though. Since China stopped taking plastic waste, most of it isn't recyclable in the US. But unless you live on a farm or have a garden, the food you eat needs (some kind of) packaging to get to you.

Food packaging made from plastic is a $28 billion global market and is growing at about 2.5% a year. Economically, it's often cheaper to create new plastic than it is to recycle it. A decade ago, the EPA noted that packaging products accounted for 23% of garbage going into our landfills. We can only imagine what that statistic looks like now.
Photo by: John Cameron
You don't have to look far to see that plastic has become a prime pollutant of our land, waters, and air. This is problematic--not just because plastic trash is everywhere--but because it has a long lifespan and rarely breaks down. When it does, it leaches toxic chemicals into our environment and turns into microplastic, ultimately ending up in not-so-nice places like our soil, beaches, in the stomachs of animals, and at the bottom of the sea.

But consumer habits and government policies are changing. At grocery stores, it's common for people to bring their bags or pay extra for a non-plastic bag. Globally, a wave of countries like Thailand and China have recently put bans in place for single-use plastics. While this is big news for the environment (and shoppers are getting creative), a few big questions remain.
Are food industries prepared for this change? Does banning plastic actually fix the problem?
Are there better alternatives than plastic out there? The answers are not so straightforward.
Photo by: David Cooper
People are turning to misleading categories of plastics

1) Renewable or bioplastics are created from plants or other biomass like corn, wood fiber, sugarcane, and much more. They don't require fossil fuels to make and hence have a smaller carbon footprint than 'normal' plastic. They can be upcycled from food waste. Despite the hopeful name, renewable and bioplastics still have a long shelf life, and there's no guarantee that they will biodegrade because high temperatures are required to break them down. If they end up in a body of water, they tend to cause the same amount of damage that regular plastics do. While their production method is a little greener and they don't contain petroleum, renewable and bioplastics will still be piling up, in-tact, in landfills hundreds of years from now if not disposed of in a proper fashion.
It's so rare for a refuse company to have the proper conditions that California banned the use of the term 'biodegradeable' for plastics sold in the state.
2) Biodegradable plastic is able to break down with the help of microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and algae over an unspecified amount of time. Waste management companies globally are seldom equipped with the proper equipment to carry out biodegradation of plastic. It's so rare for a refuse company to have the proper conditions that California banned the use of the term 'biodegradeable' for plastics sold in the state. Given that 'biodegradable' plastic has no strict time limit on breaking down or an accessible framework for waste management, the term is more of a misnomer than a solution.
Photo by: Bas Emmen

In China, people are responding to the new ban on single-use plastics by making a move to biodegradable plastics. Similarly, there is a critique of this strategy due to the lack of infrastructure available in China to be able to break them down. Ultimately, swapping one kind of plastic for another is not going to solve the issue.
For plastic that will eventually disappear look for compostable plastic
3) Certified compostable plastic is held to very high standards and testing. And it actually breaks down without harmful bi-products. A global organization called ASTM international defines compostable plastic as being able to break down completely "in aerobic municipal and industrial composting facilities" within a set amount of time and it should not leave a toxic or visual residue. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) has gone a step further to create a certification beyond ASTM's. (You can look for a "BPI" stamp on it.) It's more common for waste management groups to handle compostable plastic these days, but it's still a good idea to check with them to make sure they accept it. Otherwise, you're just #wishcycling.
Paper bags were once hailed as the answer to plastic bag use because they decompose and are made from natural sources (trees!) However, a report from the UK's Environment Agency threw some shade on their eco-ness. It noted that you would have to use a paper bag four times before it equaled the environmental impact it takes to make one plastic bag. (They considered things like the weight of the bags during shipping, durability--as paper has a higher propensity to tear--and materials--trees take a long time to grow). Even worse, cotton-based reusable bags required 131 uses to be equivalent to the production of one plastic bag. If you're switching to paper or cotton bags, be sure to use them as much as possible.

Paper and cardboard food packaging are standard for takeout these days. From an environmental standpoint, they are a much better option than styrofoam and more sustainable than plastic. However, a lot of them are lined with plastic resin to keep food from leaking. When this happens, it's unlikely that the paper packaging can be recycled.

Photo by: Guus Baggermans
Alternatives to plastic

The price, convenience and safety of plastic continues to make it a big seller with the food industry. But innovative companies are responding to consumer and environmental concerns. For a more eco-minded product, keep an eye out for the following companies who are making food packaging out of natural sources:
  • Munch Bowls is making bowls from wheat that you can eat.
  • Notpla is producing packaging from plants and seaweed.
  • Cuan Tec, out of Scotland, is upcycling leftover shellfish shells into an antimicrobial, compostable food packaging that extends the shelf-life of fresh seafood.
  • Creapaper, a German startup is turning grass/dried hay upcycled from golf courses, etc into paper that can be used to make cardboard packaging for food. Genius!
  • MarinaTex is in the R&D phase of creating packaging from fish skin and algae
  • Evesham Specialist Packaging Ltd, is using sugarcane bagasse (the wasted part of the sugarcane plant) to create a biodegradable packaging.
    And it's not just packaging companies themselves, but the food industry itself is make changes from within. North American berry producers recently committed to having 100% recyclable packaging by 2025. Trader Joe's announced a little over a year ago that they were taking steps to reduce plastic in food packaging. Tesco has a full plastic plan to reuse, retrieve, recycle, and replace plastic containers with more sustainable options. They began a plastic-free trial last spring. One Thai supermarket made the news by using banana leaves instead of plastic to wrap foods.

    Other companies are pressuring consumers to be part of the solution. Earlier this year, Blue Bottle Coffee started to pilot a project to eliminate single-use items in their cafes like disposable coffee cups, grab-and-go packaging, and bags for coffee beans. Instead, they are asking customers to bring their own mug or bag to take home the beans. Alternatively, customers can pay a deposit for a Blue Bottle-provided cup and then bring it back to the store to be cleaned before it's next use.
    Consumers are taking reuse into their own hands

    Globally, from Hong Kong to Bloomington, Indiana, we've seen a rise in "unpackaged stores" where goods and food are sold in bulk bins, and consumers bring their bags or bottles to take home their goodies. Loop is putting reuse into consumers' hands by partnering with household brands (like Haagen Dazs, Hidden Valley, Crest, and even Tide). You pay a 100% refundable deposit and Loop will send you products in a reusable container. Even upon delivery, there's no cardboard as they send it to you in a tote. Once you've used up the product, you schedule a pickup, and the reusable container and tote get sent back to the company, closing the loop on waste for you.

    It finally seems like viable alternatives exist to shift food packaging's reliance on plastic to more environmentally-friendly options. So find your favorite reusable coffee mug, put it in your reusable tote, and get on with your green self.

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