The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 13

Last updated on February 14, 2021.

Trash littered beach
Image by H. Hach from Pixabay

Welcome to this part of my Packaging series! If you read my last post, you learned about refillable options for personal care items. Today, we will look at food packaging.

I honestly cannot say enough about food packaging because there is so much encasing our foods. Sometimes this is to make packing and shipping easier. Other times, food is overpackaged to create a false sense of sanitation, as mentioned in my first post in this series. BASF, a chemical company in the business of making such packaging, argues that “good packaging can enhance the cleanness and freshness of food, while offering branding opportunities for food manufacturers.”1 This is a false notion, and I believe plastic packaging causes more health problems than not using packaging.

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” —Robert Swan, author and explorer

The Produce Section: Bagging

Produce in plastic bags
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The produce section is where I spend most of my time in the supermarket. When shopping produce, we are encouraged, even prompted, to bag the items. When I starting going plastic-free, I bought my own reusable produce bags and continually use them at all grocery stores and farmers’ markets. You can buy bags like these, or even make your own:

Cloth mesh produce bags
Cloth mesh bag
Mesh produce bags
Mesh bags made from polyester or plastic. These aren’t ideal but they are reusable.
Cloth produce bags
Organic cotton muslin cloth bags

In her book, plastic-free expert Beth Terry notes that most fruits and vegetables have their own packaging.2 Produce like bananas, lemons, onions, garlic, and a host of others, have natural peels removed before eating. These do not require extra packaging.

Plastic bags have always been marketed to us as more sanitary. So much so, that you, dear reader, most likely cringe at the idea of not bagging your fresh produce. The truth is, that’s debatable and it comes at the cost of polluting the environments we live in. I wash most of my fruits and vegetables before I eat them anyway, whether they were bagged or not. 

Man holding unbagged produce over shopping cart
Image by CYNICALifornia from Pixabay

The Produce Section: Overpackaged

Plastic wrapping on produce can be extreme, and I’ve seen it in every type of grocery store. Such packaging is wasteful because it is so unnecessary. Here are numerous examples of overpackaged produce:

Bulk Foods

Person filling jar from bulk bins at store
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

When I mention bulk purchasing, I do not mean the oversized packages of coffee, peanut butter, and toilet paper from Sam’s Club or Costco. I am referring to the bulk bins in grocery stores and other food product shops. You can fill your own containers, just have them weighed at customer service first so you are not charged for the weight of the container. You can buy foods like beans, flour, granola, candy, dried fruit, etc. from these bins. Use glass jars or reusable cloth bags and avoid packaging altogether. Also, avoid bulk foods sold in “convenient” pre-weighed plastic containers like the ones pictured below. They defeat the purpose.

Prepackaged bulk food items.
Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

There are companies nationwide that offer refillable food items, such as Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Sprouts of Colorado, Rainbow Grocery in California, and Sustainable Haus in New Jersey. You can find shops that sell bulk items by searching Zero Waste Home’s app3 or by searching Litterless.com.4

Jar filled with item from bulk bins at grocery store
My own jar that I filled at the grocery store. Photo by me

No bulk in your area?

If there are not bulk bins available in the stores where you live, you still have options. Always choose glass instead of plastic packaging, since glass is 100% recyclable and plastic is recycled at a rate of under 10%. If a Container Deposit system exists in your state, use it because it ensures a much higher recycling rate for all types of materials. Look for brands of dried pasta that do not feature a plastic window (and if you buy that, please separate the plastic from the cardboard and only recycle the latter). Reuse Ziploc bags from deli meats and cheese. Avoid individually wrapped snacks, as it’s cheaper and better for the environment to buy a larger package and separate the food into small metal containers or reusable snack bags.

Loop

Created by TerraCycle, Loop is a closed-loop model that partners with consumer brands to put products in specially-designed durable and reusable containers. This is a take-back program, or a container deposit program, which we learned about in Part 7 of my Packaging series. Here’s a two-minute video explaining the business model and one way we can solve the disposable problem:

For a while, this was only available in parts of the U.S., but now it is available nationwide. While I love this business model, it still encourages consumers to buy some of the same products without changing their habits much. As Tom Szaky mentioned in the video, “let them experience a throw-away mentality but be doing the right thing from an environmental point of view.” This does eliminate single-use disposable packages, but as a consumer culture, we need to rethink how we spend, how we buy, and what we purchase.

I have attempted to purchase items from Loop several times, but I find it expensive. I don’t mind the container deposits because I’ll get those back. But the products have an upcharge and unfortunately, I cannot fit these into my budget. This makes it inaccessible to many people who want to support the cause. The upcharge to buy products in reusable packaging should be absorbed by companies, not put on consumers.

“Reusing an object saves time, energy and resources and does away with the need for waste disposal or recycling.” -Loop

Convenience vs. Environment

Our desire for convenience, driven by marketing and busy lifestyles, is killing the environment with packaging alone. Many argue that consumers have to change the way they shop; others argue that companies must change the packaging for items consumers buy. I think both are right – companies and consumers must change. Chris Daly of PepsiCo. believes that the convenience of packaging will continue because it is less work for the consumer. “Because these habits will be slow to change, we must continue to focus on improving the packaging that consumers take home and planning better for what happens to it,” he wrote in The Future of Packaging. Additionally, stores have to implement expensive infrastructure including the bins, scales, and systems for quality control and shrinkage.

But others disagree. In a well-written article, Karine Vann wrote that the use of bulk sections in grocery stores are not maximized to their full potential.5 These sections need promotion, normalization, and stores should educate consumers on how to use them. I believe this is entirely possible! We must do all we can to eliminate packaging waste.

“To truly reduce waste, advocates believe bulk must be more than just an aisle in the store—it must become a deliberate system that starts at home and continues seamlessly into the supermarket.” -Karine Vann6

Solutions

For more ideas, refer to my page on “11 Ways to go Plastic-Free with Food.” There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging on the internet and I’ve included some articles under Additional Resources below. Last, don’t underestimate the power of growing your own food in your backyard or on your balcony.

Salad bowl with vegetables from garden
Photo by Elias Morr on Unsplash

Remember, we can all make a difference in how we consume and how we generate waste. We’re all sharing this planet and its’ beautiful and valuable resources, and we have nothing to lose by working together to create change.

If you’d like to read my Packaging series in full, please see this quick guide highlighting the contents of each article. And if you’ve already read it, I thank you and please subscribe! I’ll see you in my next post.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional resources:

Article, “How to Grocery Shop When You Can’t Bring Your Own Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated March 20, 2020. There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging when you can’t bring your own containers.

Article, “Eat your food, and the package too,” by Elizabeth Royte, National Geographic Magazine, August 2019.

Article, “The cost of plastic packaging,” by Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News, October 17, 2016.

Article, “Grocery Stores May Soon Offer Your Favorite Brands in Reusable Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated February 21, 2020. This features information about Loop.

Video, “Closing The Loop: The End of Disposable Plastics,” Fortune Magazine, June 12, 2019.

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 4

Last updated August 21, 2021.

Plastic packaging waste from my household, February 2017. Bottles, fruit container, yogurt cup, plastic bags, etc. Photo by me
Plastic packaging waste from my household, February 2017. I started doing trash audits, inspired by Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com and I realized how much plastic, mostly in the form of packaging, that I had to start eliminating. Photo by me

In my first article about packaging, I told you about packaging history, current problems with packaging, and greenwashing. I wrote about the misconceptions surrounding the terms biodegradable and compostable in my second article. In my third article, we explored bioplastics. Today, we will look at some other practices companies sometimes use to reduce their carbon footprint.

Image of a footprint with "CO2" over a map of the world
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Lightweighting

The demand for consumer goods is on the rise, especially with the population exponentially increasing. One way companies save money is to practice lightweighting, and sometimes it can reduce their environmental impact. However, this practice can also be harmful to the environment.

What is lightweighting? “A packaging trend wherein conventional packaging is replaced with a lighter-weight alternative and/or the overall amount of material used in packaging is reduced,” as defined in The Future of Packaging.1

Lighter weight items are cheaper to ship, saving companies money on fuel which also creates fewer emissions. But creating lighter packaging means replacing conventional packaging, such as glass, with lighter weight alternatives, like plastic. This has made plastic the preferred material and unfortunately, much of that plastic is not recycled.

Another lightweighting method is making the materials thinner. PET bottles and aluminum cans use about 30% less material than they did in the 1980s. Lush Cosmetics worked with their bottling manufacturer to make their bottles 10% thinner, and this saved nearly 13,500 pounds of plastic in 2016.

“Although lightweighting gains have been made for all containers as a result of these technological efficiencies, these gains are overshadowed by huge increases in per capita consumption and total beverage sales (especially for bottled water…sports drinks and energy drinks) as well as stagnant or shrinking recycling rates. All of these factors lead to vastly more container material” not getting recycled. –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates2

Convenience Items

Lightweighting makes consumer goods cheaper and easier to access, especially in the form of convenience items. Think about coffee pods, applesauce pouches, and fresh vegetables ready to be steamed in plastic. But at what cost does this convenience come? This packaging is not recyclable in most municipalities and goes straight to landfills. Some can be sent to a specialty recycler, like Terracycle, but that is not a long-term practical solution.

Example of Coffee pod or “K-Cup”. I used these for several years before I realized the harm they were causing.
Example of an applesauce pouch, now also sold as smoothie blends and yogurt pouches. I purchased these for several years before I realized how plastic was damaging our environment.

“This is lightweighting’s biggest problem: no economic recycling model has yet emerged due to the technical challenges in processing and recovering the base materials,” -Chris Daly, Vice President of Environmental Sustainability, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, PepsiCo3

Water

Sales of bottled water, especially in plastic, now exceed those of other non-alcoholic bottled beverages in the US. Here is a graph that exhibits the rapid growth:

Graph of plastic bottle water sales
Graph from the Container Recycling Institute

A few companies now sell bottled water in aluminum, including the brands Open Water4 and CanO Water.5 In summer 2019, PepsiCo announced that they would stop selling Bubly seltzer water in plastic bottles and switch to aluminum cans. They also planned to test switching Aquafina to aluminum cans.6

Replacing plastic with aluminum can be a positive packaging change. This is not a new idea, as brands like LaCroix water have been in aluminum for years. Aluminum is 100% recyclable, assuming they are free from plastic film lining, and almost 75% of all aluminum produced in the U.S. is still in use today, according to the Aluminum Association.7 Recycling aluminum uses significantly less energy because it is heated at a much lower temperature than using bauxite, the virgin raw material used to make aluminum.

However, the real solution is to drink tap water and carry your own reusable metal or glass water container.

Image of Open Water aluminum bottles

“Bottled water is healthy and convenient, but single-use plastic bottles are wreaking havoc on our environment, and especially our oceans.”8

Products in Cartons

Great Value Organic 2% milk in a blue, purple, and white carton
Milk carton

Cartons are another example of lightweighting, as the containers are lighter to transport. There are two types: cartons like those that contain milk or orange juice, are paperboard lined with a plastic film (polyethylene). Milk cartons haven’t been wax coated since the 1940s, as noted by Beth Terry.9 The other, called aseptic or shelf-stable containers, are multilayered with paperboard, plastic film (polyethylene), and aluminum. Most of the latter are made by the packaging company Tetra Pak. Common examples of products sold in cartons include shelf-stable milk, broth, coconut water, and juice boxes.

However, a carton’s end of life is usually highly problematic because they are multi-layered and it is expensive to separate the materials. In addition, some polyethylenes contain toxins linked to human health problems.

Diagrams of cartons and the layers of materials.
Diagrams from the Carton Council

Recyclability is Poor

Cartons are recyclable in theory, but it is not common, in large part because it is difficult to separate the layers. The recycler shreds the cartons, sanitizes them, and ties the shreds into bales. A pulp mill that has the appropriate machinery can buy the bales from the recycler, and the polyethylene coating must be separated from the paper and strained off. The plastics can be shipped to a plastics manufacturer for re-use, but usually, it is simply disposed of. The shredded cartons can then be reprocessed into pulp for paper.10 That’s a lot of work for a single type of waste, and most of the time these are landfilled or incinerated.

The Carton Council

The Carton Council advertises cartons as recyclable. However, as attorney and sustainability expert Jennie Romer noted, this is an unqualified claim. The Federal Trade Commission’s definition of recycling requires that an entire package be recyclable to be labeled as such. Cartons are not fully recyclable since the plastic film and aluminum foil layer are usually discarded. “A qualified claim of ‘only the paper layer is recyclable’ would be more accurate.”11

The Carton Council also asserts that if you cannot recycle them where you live, you can ship them at your own cost to certain facilities.12 However, I cleaned and saved cartons from non-dairy milk and broth for several months and found it was cost-prohibitive to ship. I found this discouraging and impractical.

We should avoid buying all products in these containers for both environmental and health reasons. Remember, that even if your local recycler “accepts” these items for recycling, they are often landfilled. The paper in these cartons might break down in the environment but the toxins in the plastic will infect the land and water for decades or longer.

Swanson chicken broth in a shelf stable carton
Swanson chicken broth in a shelf-stable carton

Solutions

We have power as consumers. Companies want to sell us their goods, presumably more than they want to sell us the packaging. So avoid purchasing products in packaging that you don’t like or support.

Instead, purchase items in bulk in your own containers, or buy goods in metal or glass instead of plastic or cartons. Buy a reusable beverage container to avoid buying drinks in plastic and avoid convenience packaging since it is rarely recyclable.

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe! In my next post, I’ll explain how the manufacturers should become part of the solution.

 

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Footnotes: