Unpackaged is best, but that’s often not realistic. But choosing a packaging material with the least amount of impact is easier said than done. To point, what to consider while choosing packaging: the life-cycle, transportation, energy to be made, energy to be recycled.
Seems like a lot, right?
What’s the most environmentally friendly food packaging?
Because the truth is, as one article puts it, “as with many environmental quandaries, the answer depends on whether you care more about climate change or solid waste, chemicals in the ground water or human toxicity, acid rain or smog.”
There’s no perfect answer, but here are some facts to help you decide.*
*This information is fairly generalized without a ton of nuance, so as not to overwhelm. If you’re really interested in learning the nitty-gritty about food packaging and its environmental impact in terms of production, transportation, and recycling, check out this super helpful 2016 study of the same name by the EPA.
Glass, for me, is the winner.
(And this is a very important but.)
Only because I don’t buy very much of it and I don’t buy it with the plan of recycling. Many places don’t accept glass or don’t want to because it’s expensive and difficult to process. So if you plan to keep it, glass is a great choice.
Anyway, let’s talk glass.
It’s made from naturally-occurring, bountiful ingredients like sand and soda ash, and lime-stone. There’s also no physical difference between virgin and recycled grades of glass, so glass is infinitely recyclable. Plus, it’s non-reactive so it can serve a wide range of functions after it’s been purchased.
Although it comes from naturally-occurring ingredients, they’re mined which has a detrimental effect on the environment. Plus, the heat required to create glass (up to 2500C!) means that the creation of glass is an energy-consuming project.
Still… An EPA study looking at milk containers found that refillable glass uses about half as much energy during its life cycle than the plastic or gable-top cartons.
Be aware that this container is getting reused – glass doesn’t make much sense when it’s a one and done kind of thing. (That shouldn’t be a problem as someone participating in the zero waste movement!)
The takeaway: consider glass if you’re willing to reuse it. Glass can be recycled but takes a lot of energy for production, so why not get some use out of it first as storage, a plant container, or decoration?
Metal is my choice, personally, if I’m going to be recycling it. Metal is lucrative to recycle it so it has a much lower chance of ending up in the landfill. Plus, the recovery and recycling of aluminum and steel cans is considered to be a closed loop process – that’s the circular economy we’re looking for!
Let’s start with aluminum. New aluminum, if you didn’t know, is made from bauxite, a mineral that requires extensive mining. You can read more about the effect it had on Malaysia – even though the government abruptly halted mining for a time after realizing the costs – and the environment here. Spoiler alert: not great.
The good news in all of that is cans from recycled material require as little as 4-8% of the energy required to make the same cans from bauxite ore (source). That means there’s a pretty good chance most of the aluminum you’re consuming – particularly in food packaging – is mostly recycled. Aluminum cans have more than three times the recycled content than EPA estimates for glass or plastic. (EPA report here).
How about steel or tin? These are your vegetable or soup cans. Typically, steel and tin are easily recyclable. Numbers vary, but they claim 70-90% of steel cans get recycled yearly, which makes them among the most recycled products. But one word of warning: they may be lined with a layer of BPA (the FDA says it’s cool, but other worries about the health implications), but make them more difficult to recycle.
The takeaway: metal containers are an excellent choice if you’re planning to recycle since they’re cheap and infinitely recyclable.
I have mixed feeling about paper packaging. On the one hand, it’s easily recyclable or compostable. On the other hand producing paper has a huge carbon footprint and very high water usage. (I saw a statistic that I couldn’t back up that said paper is the third or fourth largest source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries.) We also have very few reliable ways to find out where paper packaging comes from.
That being said, there are plenty of products being offered that contain recycled paper, which does offset the need for new trees to be taken down. Unfortunately, that number doesn’t tend to be higher than 35% in most materials unless you specifically look for it. Luckily, many companies that package their products in paper or cardboard are environmentally aware and do use recycled materials.
In terms of recyclability, “magazines/third-class mail, newspaper, office paper, phone books and textbooks are all assumed to be recycled in a closed-loop cycle” which means they’re continuously reused for the same purpose, although paper does have a finite amount of times it can be re-used. Other mixed papers are not. (source)
The other big issue with paper is that it usually can’t be recycled if it has food on it (ie. a greasy pizza box is not an option); luckily, there’s a composting solution.
The takeaway: paper is a good option because it’s easily recyclable and compostable for most people. That being said, it has a massive impact on the environment and, if purchased, should be used many times before retiring.
Some people claim that plastic is better than the above options because it can be recycled and it takes less energy to produce. What people don’t say about that is plastic packaging is partly derived from petroleum, is not infinitely recyclable, and never, ever actually goes away. While there are many different types of plastics with various levels of impact, let’s just talk on a broad scale.
Plastic is “produced from natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining” (source). As we know, oil and natural gas extractions can be highly damaging to the environment – that’s a story for another time.
Once it’s produced as food packaging, it’s meant as a single-use item to be discarded after it arrives home. While many people don’t think much about what happens afterwards, the truth is pretty depressing: most plastic doesn’t actually get recycled. According to an EPA study, only 9.5% of plastic material brought into the waste stream was recycled in 2014. 15% was combusted for energy, and the remaining 75.5% was sent to landfills.
What little does get recycled is ‘downcycled’, meaning plastics have a very finite life as their efficacy is reduced each time they’re recycled.
And at the end of a plastic’s life? Well, it never actually goes away. Plastic may degrade into smaller and smaller pieces (which are then in the soil and waterways) but – as far as we have seen – do not actually ever biodegrade. Even if it does fully degrade, our plastic use is wildly outpacing its ability to do so, leaving us with mountains of trash with no hope of disappearing.
The takeaway: if you have any other option, just no. If you do purchase plastic, use it as much as possible before recycling.