Approximately 60% of all plastics produced worldwide are used for food packaging (1Trusted Source).
Due to the environmental and human health effects of nondegradable plastic packaging, many people are fighting to drastically reduce plastic production and increase recycling — as well as promote more sustainable food packaging.
This article explains the need for eco-friendly food packaging, lists 5 types to try, and tells you a few to avoid.
Alberto Bogo/Stocksy United
Why is sustainable food packaging important?
Particular concerns surrounding plastics include their accumulation in the oceans and landfills, the generation of micro- and nanoplastics, and human exposure to toxins when chemicals in food packaging transfer to foods (1Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source).
In addition to the chemicals that are intentionally used to produce plastics, many non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) are found in food packages. These chemicals pose toxicity and endocrine-disrupting risks in humans (1Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source).
Yet, environmentally friendly packaging alternatives are becoming ever more widespread.
These eco-friendly food packages often use sustainable bioplastics and plant-based extracts, such as wheat, wood, and bamboo, that are biodegradable, reusable, and free of hazardous chemicals (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source).
While they’ve also been shown to contain chemicals and NIAS, studies demonstrate that the movement of chemicals into food and your body is much lower with eco-friendly packaging than it is with plastics, making them safer for the environment and human health (3Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
Exposure to chemicals in food packaging is unavoidable, but efforts to reduce the transfer of these chemicals into food are vital for human health (3Trusted Source).
Sustainable food packaging options
Here are 5 eco-friendly food packaging options that are better for the planet — and your health.
1. Glass containers
Glass has a multitude of uses and benefits for daily life.
It’s a reusable, recyclable, and durable material that’s also easy to clean and use as transportable food packaging. Glass food and drink containers include water bottles and bento boxes (9Trusted Source).
However, glass lids aren’t leak-free, making them unideal for portable containers to take to work or school or on an outing.
Therefore, most of these transportable glass food containers use snap-locking plastic lids with a silicone seal or bamboo lids that double as portable cutting boards.
Be sure to choose lids that are free of bisphenol-A (BPA), a known endocrine disruptor shown to play a role in both male and female infertility and tumor development (10Trusted Source).
Unless broken, these containers have a lifespan 3.5 times that of plastics and can be recycled when discarded, reducing the negative environmental impact of plastics (11Trusted Source).
2. Stainless steel
Food-grade stainless steel is durable, rust-free, and heat resistant, making it a safe choice for food storage. It’s also reusable and recyclable.
Stainless steel bento lunch boxes are widely available, but most products use silicone to make them leak-free, either via a silicone seal with lockable steel clips or colorful, BPA-free, food-safe silicone lids.
Glass storage jars with stainless steel, airtight lids for keeping bulk foods like flours, grains, and spices offer the best of both worlds.
Bamboo is biodegradable and possesses many desirable traits for food packaging, as it’s durable and heat resistant (12Trusted Source).
Bamboo-containing food packaging includes countertop glass jars with bamboo lids, portable plastic-free lunch boxes with bamboo lids, bamboo bread boxes, and bamboo serving bowls.
Keep in mind that food containers made from bamboo or other plant fibers are less durable than glass or stainless steel and wear and tear more easily.
4. Rice husk
Rice husk is a byproduct of rice farming that’s low cost, renewable, and biodegradable (13Trusted Source).
In one study, rice husk was shown to have bio-adsorbent properties, which means that it absorbs pollutants from its surrounding environment (13Trusted Source).
Products made from this compound include sealable lunch boxes and shatterproof serving bowls.
5. Gelatin films
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), gelatin is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as a food additive (17Trusted Source).
Gelatin films are filled with antimicrobial cellulose, which inhibits the growth of common pathogens that cause foodborne illness, including Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli.
These active fillers make gelatin films safer alternatives to conventional plastics (15Trusted Source).
Microcrystalline cellulose (MCC) and rosin-grafted cellulose nanocrystals (r-CNCs) are two main fillers for gelatin food packaging.
Types of plastic to avoid
These petroleum-based plastic products aren’t biodegradable, meaning they don’t decompose into natural substances.
Instead, they break down into fragments known as micro- and nanoplastics that contaminate the environment and threaten natural ecosystems and human health (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
While these additives may produce a more desirable plastic product that enables food storage and transport, the chemicals they contain lead to pollution and increase the risk of endocrine disorders and cancers in humans (1Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).
Here are 3 petroleum-based plastics that you should avoid.
1. Single-use plastics
Straws, beverage bottles, bottle caps, Styrofoam cups, and plastic bags are the most common, unsustainable, and inappropriately disposed single-use plastics.
Oceans and coastal areas are particularly prone to the damage caused by single-use plastics, as exemplified by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an accumulation of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean between Japan and Hawaii.
2. Plastics with BPA
BPA not only accumulates in the environment but also migrates from food packaging to the food itself. When ingested, it may increase your risk of infertility, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and other metabolic disorders (10Trusted Source).
3. Plastic takeout containers
Tips to cut down on the use of plastic packaging
Choose reusable metal or bamboo straws in place of single-use plastic straws. Cleaning brushes for reusable straws are a must-have for the hygienic maintenance of these products. Alternatively, single-use paper straws are biodegradable and eco-friendly.
Opt for nonplastic or BPA-free reusable water bottles and consider investing in a bottle brush.
Use at-home water filters — either faucet filters or pitchers with filters — help reduce the use of single-use plastic water bottles.
Skip the utensils when you next order takeout to use less single-use plastic. Instead, use your own utensils.
When you need to replace food containers, choose glass containers rather than plastic.
Look for biodegradable, bioplastic products in place of conventional, petroleum-based plastics.
Recycle appropriate plastic food packages to reduce your carbon footprint.
Washing and reusing plastic food containers, such as Tupperware and plastic zip bags, may help reduce their environmental impact (11Trusted Source).
Companies at the forefront of eco-friendly packaging
The following companies produce sustainable, biodegradable food packaging.
BioPak is an Australian company that manufactures eco-friendly, paper-based disposable food packaging from trees sourced from sustainably managed plantations.
Products include hot cups, takeaway containers, and cutlery. The company’s bioplastic products are made from paper, not petroleum.
The Robinette Company
The Robinette Company specializes in post-consumer recycled film and paper that helps create a circular economy in which materials are reused rather than thrown away, and it has been approved by the FDA.
Products include stand-up pouches for snacks and grains, laminated rolls for packaging, and printed film and paper.
PrimeWare is an American distributor that provides eco-friendly, disposable products to food service establishments.
Products include compostable food containers, paper straws, hot cups with lids, and tableware (plates, bowls, and trays).
PouchEco makes plastic-free, plant-based stand-up pouches that are compostable, which means that these food packages decompose into organic material.
This manufacturer supplies resealable pouches to food companies that sell products like gourmet veggie sausages, tofu, and gummy vitamins.
Ecologic Brands is another American company that produces the Eco.bottle, a sustainable, compostable bottle made from recycled boxes.
The bottom line
Petroleum-based food packaging accumulates in the environment and poses numerous health risks, including metabolic disorders and even cancer.
While it may be impossible to completely avoid these plastics, choosing eco-friendly food packaging that’s biodegradable, less toxic, and recyclable is a great step toward mitigating plastics’ harmful effects on your health and the environment.