While plastic has been vilified, there’s another problematic p-word you should be aware of: packaging. Fortunately, sustainable food packaging… Image by Fascinadora via Getty Images on Canva Pro #sustainablefoodpackaging #sustainablefoodpackagingsolutions #sustainablefoodpackagingtrends #typesofsustainablefoodpackaging #mostsustainablefoodpackaging #ecofriendlyfoodpackaging #environmentallyfriendlyfoodpackaging #sustainablejungle
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Sustainable Food Packaging: 12 Wrappers That Won’t Wreck Our Planet


While plastic has been vilified for its impact on our planet, there’s another p-word that should receive more of the blame: packaging. 

A whopping 40% of globally-produced plastic ends up as packaging—and 60% of this is used for food and beverages. 

Fortunately, sustainable food packaging can take a bite out of this number and support our health in the process. 

Not only do our appetites consume more than 228 million metric tons of plastic food packaging annually, but it’s often accompanied by hazardous chemicals.

Think: adhesives, coatings, plasticizers, flame retardants, colorants, biocides, stabilizers, impurities, and solvents, to name a few.

Fancy a granola bar wrapped in these chemicals? Us neither.

Doing something a little differently, sustainable food packaging companies are exploring both tried and tested and new and innovative materials to make our food wrappers a little greener. 

Before we rip, tear, twist, and unzip our way through some sustainable food packaging examples, head to the end of the article for a working definition of sustainable food packaging.

1. PACKAGE FREE

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This is a bit of an obvious one, but no packaging is better than even the most sustainable food packaging solutions

Bulk stores are the main way to accomplish this.

Even without one nearby, you can still cut down on food-related packaging by bringing your own bags, asking the deli or meat counters to fill your reusable containers instead of using a single-use plastic bag, and choosing produce that’s packaged naturally—in its own skin! 

Pros and cons of going package free

In addition to being better for our planet, buying in bulk is generally cheaper, too. 

The only con is that you’ll have to find a local bulk store or wait for your delivery to be shipped from bulk stores online.

While local options are limited in many parts of the world, the recent growth of the zero waste trend hopefully bodes well for growth in bulk stores, too.


2. CARDBOARD

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Image by Clair XT via Unsplash

Cardboard is biodegradable, compostable, and almost always recyclable. 

In most conditions, it can fully break down in just 2-3 months

No surprise then that it’s one of the most popular types of sustainable food packaging.

Pros and cons of cardboard packaging 

In addition to having an end-of-life fate that’s far better than single-use plastics, cardboard is an effective and inexpensive type of sustainable paper food packaging, too. 

Because it’s lighter and can be folded and flattened, it uses less space during storage, which can reduce shipping emissions. 

Compared with plastics like PET, PP, and PVC, this helps cardboard achieve a carbon footprint that’s up to 90% lower

The one big drawback to cardboard food packaging is that it’s made from timber. 

Pine trees are the usual choice, with a single tree producing about 151 cardboard boxes. To satisfy cardboard consumption in the US alone, about 493 million trees are needed annually.

Fortunately, about 68% of the cardboard we use is recycled and blended with lumber industry byproducts, like wood chips and sawdust. 

Another major con to cardboard food packaging is that food residue and grease can render cardboard non-recyclable if not cleaned properly (as it rarely is). Unlike plastic recycling, there is no high-heat stage to burn off such residues.

As such, oil is considered the worst contaminant in paper recycling, meaning you’re doing more harm than good by tossing those greasy pizza boxes into the blue bin.


3. GLASS

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Glass is one of the other most common sustainable packaging materials for food.

Jars and bottles made from glass can also be reused, making them the ideal choice for everything from plastic free food storage containers to vessels for preserving food at home.

From health, environmental, and taste perspectives, glass can’t be beat. 

Pros and cons of glass packaging 

Glass is infinitely recyclable and, unlike most of these other materials, it doesn’t suffer from a loss in purity or quality during the recycling process. 

An estimated 80% of recovered glass bottles are transformed into new ones—in as little as 30 days, to boot.

Glass is impermeable and nonporous and has almost zero chance of chemical interactions, meaning the foods it contains will retain their aromas and flavors (without imparting toxic chemicals).

However, the glass vs plastic debate is a tricky one and there’s no clear winner, though we’d still opt for glass. 

Glass requires a lot of heat during manufacturing, as well as a significant amount of natural and non-renewable resources (like minerals and sand). 

It’s heavier, too, which means much higher transportation emissions. 

While recycled glass does outperform plastic, that’s only if it’s done properly. A lot of glass (looking at you, broken glass) is “wishcycled.”

When material recovery facilities refuse the glass, it ends up in landfills where it can remain for one million years (a decomposition rate significantly slower than plastic).


4. ALUMINUM

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Aluminum is another infinitely recyclable choice for sustainable food packaging materials

It’s hygienic, non-tainting, non-toxic, and impermeable ensuring food retains flavor and aroma. 

Pros and cons of aluminum packaging 

Because aluminum is lightweight, it can have smaller transportation emissions than heavier materials, like stainless steel and glass. 

Recycling aluminum requires just 5% of the energy that was used during its original production. 

It’s also indefinitely recyclable without degradation in quality—whereas materials like plastic are downgraded into less stable substances each time they’re recycled.

The US does okay with a 50% recycling rate of beer and soda cans, our aluminum food packaging rate is just 34.9%. 

That said, one of the big downfalls with aluminum is that a lot of it still ends up in landfills—to the tune of 2.7 million tons a year in the US alone. 

When it’s not made from recycled aluminum, virgin production requires the raw material bauxite—a notorious water, air, and soil polluter. 

It’s also a significant driver of deforestation in countries like Jamaica and Brazil.

If you find yourself eating or drinking out of aluminum, be sure to recycle it.


5. STAINLESS STEEL

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Stainless steel is a prized metal alloy and type of sustainable food packaging because it’s highly resistant to corrosion, doesn’t tarnish or react with food, and can withstand high temperatures. 

It’s also extremely strong and durable, which is why you often find it used in cutlery, cookware, eco friendly lunch boxes, and other kitchen essentials.

Pros and cons of stainless steel packaging 

Of all known materials, the lifecycle of stainless steel is associated with one of the lightest environmental impacts on the planet. 

Not only is it long-lasting, but it’s also 100% recyclable—going back into something that is just as tough and durable as the original product. 

The downside to stainless steel is the high production cost which is why you don’t see it used for disposable food packaging. 

For reusable packaging, however, it’s one of the most sustainable food packaging choices out there.


6. BAMBOO

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Because of its quick-growing nature and the fact that it releases 35% more oxygen than the equivalent amount of trees, pandas aren’t the only ones who love bamboo. 

In clothing, the use of bamboo fabric is growing almost as fast as the plant itself.

In its less processed wooden form, the material is also being used in a range of other products—like sustainable furniture and plastic free sustainable food packaging.

Pros and cons of bamboo packaging 

Bamboo offers decent mechanical and thermal properties and doesn’t require added toxins or harsh chemicals, making it ideal for food packaging. 

While it isn’t as durable as some other types of packaging, it is biodegradable. Those bamboo utensils in your zero waste kit can end up supporting Earth, instead of releasing microplastics.

Depending on conditions, bamboo can compost in as little as 2-6 months

The only downside to bamboo is that it’s most often used in reusable food packaging, such as utensils, coffee cups, plates, and straws.

It rarely replaces disposable plastic wrappers and clamshells—yet.


7. RICE HUSK

While plastic has been vilified, there’s another problematic p-word you should be aware of: packaging. Fortunately, sustainable food packaging… Image by Marek Studzinski via Unsplash #sustainablefoodpackaging #sustainablefoodpackagingsolutions #sustainablefoodpackagingtrends #typesofsustainablefoodpackaging #mostsustainablefoodpackaging #ecofriendlyfoodpackaging #environmentallyfriendlyfoodpackaging #sustainablejungle
Image by Marek Studzinski via Unsplash

A byproduct of the rice industry, rice husk has emerged as a low-cost, biodegradable, renewable, and innovative sustainable food packaging solution

Without an option for reuse, rice husk is often burned, which has obvious negative impacts on the planet. 

When it goes into things like reusable coffee cups, it prevents this fate and the use of more non-biodegradable packaging—win-win!

Pros and cons of rice husk packaging 

Not only that, but it offers a highly insulative material that’s perfect for keeping that latte or cold brew at your preferred temperature. 

Unfortunately, like bamboo, we have yet to see rice husk be used for food packaging beyond reusable bowls, cups, and lunch boxes.

BUT rice husk has shown some success as a biodegradable alternative to Styrofoam.


8. MUSHROOM

While plastic has been vilified, there’s another problematic p-word you should be aware of: packaging. Fortunately, sustainable food packaging… Image by Ripley Elisabeth Brown via Unsplash #sustainablefoodpackaging #sustainablefoodpackagingsolutions #sustainablefoodpackagingtrends #typesofsustainablefoodpackaging #mostsustainablefoodpackaging #ecofriendlyfoodpackaging #environmentallyfriendlyfoodpackaging #sustainablejungle
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As another eco alternative to plastic packaging and Styrofoam, mushroom mycelium is slowly growing into consumer product consumption. 

Mycelium is the root-like body of a mushroom that grows underground. It needs something to consume, so hemp hurds—a waste product of the hemp industry—are used. 

The two are added to a mold and the mycelium grows into the intended shape (think: wine bottle packaging). 

It takes just a week for the mycelium to fill the mold and provide a strong, insulative packaging material. 

Pros and cons of mushroom packaging 

One of the biggest pros of this eco friendly food packaging is what comes on the other end of its life cycle: total biodegradability in only 45 days

You can break it into chunks and toss it in your indoor compost bin or outdoor heap, where it will break down into humus to quickly support soils. 

In fact, mushroom compost is extremely nutrient-rich compost and improves soil’s water retention better than most other forms of compost.

Plus, it only uses about one-tenth of the energy required to produce plastic, produces 90% fewer emissions, and is inexpensive. 

The only con is that because of its shape, it likely won’t be a replacement for plastic food bags or wrappers anytime soon. 

Still, there’s mushroom for opportunity with this material and with big names like IKEA starting to use it in place of styrofoam, we hope to see its use grow as quickly as mushrooms themselves.


9. PLA

While plastic has been vilified, there’s another problematic p-word you should be aware of: packaging. Fortunately, sustainable food packaging… Image by New Africa Studio via Canva Pro #sustainablefoodpackaging #sustainablefoodpackagingsolutions #sustainablefoodpackagingtrends #typesofsustainablefoodpackaging #mostsustainablefoodpackaging #ecofriendlyfoodpackaging #environmentallyfriendlyfoodpackaging #sustainablejungle
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Beginning to serve as an alternative to lightweight plastic bags, wrappers, and films, PLA is the bioplastic in the spotlight these days. 

PLA, or polylactic acid, is a plastic produced from fermentable sugars (corn, sugarcane, sugar beet, cassava, etc.)—not fossil fuels. 

In some cases, these are sourced as waste byproducts.

Because it offers similar characteristics to polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene, PLA is the most widely used commercial bioplastic.

Pros and cons of PLA packaging 

When it replaces conventional plastic, bioplastics like PLA have the potential to reduce industrial emissions by 25%.

PLA is biodegradable and in the perfect conditions of a commercial composting facility can break down in 45-90 days. 

BUT when this new bioplastic has been put under scrutiny, some research has begun to challenge its biodegradability in usual conditions, finding that it remains unchanged in moderate-temperature soil after 24 months.

Worse, it is practically non-degradable in seawater—which we know is where a lot ends up.

Unless it finds its way to an industrial composting facility or soil environment hotter than 122°F (50°C), it may look just like traditional plastic at the end of its life.


10. PBAT

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Where PLA provides strength, PBAT (polybutylene adipate terephthalate) provides flexibility and rapid biodegradability. 

The two are often combined in things like compostable trash bags, sandwich bags, and other eco-minded plastic alternatives. 

Pros and cons of PBAT packaging 

Unlike PLA, PBAT is fossil fuel-based. 

However, it’s carefully designed to be biodegradable under usual soil conditions. 

PBAT can actually biodegrade faster than PLA, and even some natural forms of food packaging—like banana peels and avocado skins. 

Unfortunately, when PBAT and PLA are combined, they’ve been found to be responsible for the same amount of microplastics as traditional plastic. 

Plus, PBAT is made out of petroleum. 

Combined with the land and water requirements of PLA, early studies have indicated that these new plastics (especially when blended) may have an even higher environmental burden than petrochemical plastic. 

Time will tell how these two will fare as sustainable food packaging trends but it’s currently clear that more development and end-of-life solutions are needed.


11. RECYCLED PLASTIC

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Bridging the gap between safety and sustainability, countries like the UK and US are beginning to shift their perception regarding recycled plastic packaging. 

Warming up to a circular economy, both regions have developed legislation in recent years to permit some use of recycled materials in food packaging. 

In most cases, this has been limited to rPET use in beverage bottles.

Pros and cons of recycled plastic packaging

While food industry giants Unilever and Nestlé have begun to use food-grade recycled plastics in some of their products (likely for-profit incentives over anything else), recycled plastic is environmentally friendly food packaging that’s still approached with some skepticism. 

75% of our food packaging is made with polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) and we have yet to recycle enough of those materials at a food-grade standard to be used for our favorite snacks. 

Driven by these powerful multinational companies, we may eventually get to this point. 

But remember that recycling only works once or twice for plastic before it downgrades so much that it can’t escape its fate of ending up in a landfill or incinerator.


12. GELATIN & CHITOSAN-BASED FILMS

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Designing sustainable food packaging can involve animal-based products—in this case, gelatin and chitosan.

Sourced from land-based animal bones and insect and crustacean shells, these materials are making their way into nontoxic, low-cost, biodegradable (and sometimes edible) packaging.

In fact, you probably recognize gelatin for its use as the outer shell in many zero waste vitamins, supplements, and pill capsules.

Pros and cons of gelatin and chitosan-based packaging 

Both gelatin and chitosan offer antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, which help to extend the product’s shelf life. 

Experiments with chitosan-based packaging demonstrated a bread shelf life that was twice as long as that stored in plastic packaging films. 

Potentially limiting widespread application, however, gelatin films are relatively weak and easily degradable, especially when they come into contact with water. 

While chitosan is one of the most abundant polysaccharides on Earth, it, along with gelatin, does come from animal sources—which brings with it ethical and environmental considerations.


ECO FRIENDLY PACKAGING FOR FOOD: A WORKING DEFINITION

Often used as a marketing tactic (greenwashing alert!) “sustainable” packaging for food should be approached cautiously. 

Even the best examples of sustainable food packaging come with downsides and there’s no silver bullet, yet.

So, what packaging is considered sustainable?

There’s no universal definition, but we can consider eco-friendly food packaging as packaging that:

  • Is produced in a way that has a minimal negative impact on the environment
  • Requires fewer resources to create
  • Is associated with a lower carbon footprint
  • Can be reused, composted, or recycled
  • And/or is biodegradable in real-world conditions

Plus, all of these sustainable food packaging brands should consider the purpose of packaging in the first place: improved safety and shelf life.

The case for plastic

While plastic packaging is clearly overused and our planet would benefit from making the switch to environmentally sustainable food packaging, there are limited instances in which its use is justified.

Most notably, it helps to prevent food waste as a means to, say, keep produce fresh.

When plastic film is used to wrap a cucumber, for example, that cucumber has a shelf life five times longer. 

While it is possible to freeze meat without plastic, vacuum-sealed plastic packaging can also be very useful, taking meat’s shelf life from just a few days, to a couple of weeks, or even years in the freezer. 

The fact that food waste is a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses is certainly a consideration in defining the most sustainable food packaging

While it’s clear that we’re using far too many single-use plastics, we’re only in the early stages of finding materials that are just as shelf-life savvy but have a lower environmental impact.


FINAL THOUGHTS ON SUSTAINABLE FOOD PACKAGING SOLUTIONS

Why is sustainable food packaging important?

Because it can satisfy our cravings for safe, long-lasting food without starving our planet. 

While the past few years have brought about several new sustainable food brands using eco-packaging options, there are a lot of reasons why plastic is still (unfortunately) the #1 choice. 

To eventually boot it out of the snack aisle, we need to keep chit-chatting about chitosan films and bioplastic pros and cons. 

That said, bring this up at your next potluck, add a copy to next week’s grocery list, or share this article with all of your foodie friends. 


While plastic has been vilified, there’s another problematic p-word you should be aware of: packaging. Fortunately, sustainable food packaging… Image by RODNAY Productions via Pexels on Canva Pro #sustainablefoodpackaging #sustainablefoodpackagingsolutions #sustainablefoodpackagingtrends #typesofsustainablefoodpackaging #mostsustainablefoodpackaging #ecofriendlyfoodpackaging #environmentallyfriendlyfoodpackaging #sustainablejungle

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