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Because You Asked

Why Isn’t More Food Packaging Recyclable?

By Recyclebank |

From fast food to groceries, a lot of what our food comes packaged in isn’t recyclable.

Dear Recyclebank: Recycling is important, but I am dismayed at the amount of food packaging that isn’t recyclable, from fast food to our frozen veggies in the supermarket. After learning what can and cannot be recycled, it seems more of what I use will end up in the landfill due to manufacturers’ lack of recyclable packaging. How can we remedy this issue? Patricia F.


Dear Patricia: Modern technology and eating habits have made food available in so many different ways: It’s not just fresh food that’s come from a nearby farm and is cooked immediately and served on a plate, but also food that is grown and invented and comes in a variety of containers and packaging to make it more convenient to buy, store, cook, and eat. All this packaging no doubt makes it possible for us to never miss a meal, to more easily enjoy outings and long distance travel, and to be more productive by eating on the go, but it also — as you point out — results in ever-increasing food packaging waste.


A recent report from As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that some major fast food chains and grocery companies are doing a good job of recycling, using recycled content in their packaging, and creating less waste overall. But still, only half of all the packaging we run into every day is recycled, leaving a lot of room for improvement by us and by the food industry.


A lot of that waste has to do with the material so much food is packaged in. Food can be packaged in one material (like plastic, paper, or metal), but a lot of food comes packaged in some combination material. Single-material packaging (like paperboard boxes your tea packets might come in) is often recyclable, while mixed-material packages (ranging from soup cartons to laminated coffee bags or pouches to foil-and-paper burger or gum wrappers) often pose a recycling problem and have to be trashed.


But food producers have to take into account more than just recyclability when packaging their food. Food packaging is made to ensure a long, safe, stable shelf life; sometimes recyclable packaging can provide that, but sometimes it can’t. And when food packaging isn’t recyclable, it’s not necessarily all bad. Where you don’t find recyclable packaging, you might find other benefits: Shelf-stable packaging that allows food to live on and on and on without spoiling may help reduce food waste in the long run. And some food packaging — like those soup cartons or coffee pouches — may be extremely lightweight compared to their alternative (metal cans). When food in lighter-weight packaging is transported from manufacturer to store, it winds up using less fuel and generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions than its heavier counterpart.


This doesn’t absolve the food industry from both producing and promoting better food packaging options, though, and many are working towards just that. Keurig, for example, is working to make all single-serve brew cups recyclable by 2020.


Finding recyclable packaging that also maintains food’s shelf life and is light-weight is a big challenge in front of the big companies that make our food. But there are things we as consumers can do, too — like making wiser purchasing decisions. Here are three ideas to get you rolling:

  • Choose products in recyclable packaging (and recycle them!).
  • Avoid the need for shelf-stable product packaging by buying fresh foods only in the amount you need.
  • Out for coffee? Opt for reusable mugs instead of disposable paper cups.




Do you have any ideas on how to reduce food packaging waste? Share your tips in the comments below!

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  • Sally W. 4 years ago
    Fill frozen food bags using 1 inch smaller bags. Fill those meat packages by using smaller packaging. Use smaller plastic bags in the produce section. Just following these guidelines would save money, energy, scarce resources, greenhouse gases and the environment.
  • Cher M. 4 years ago
    Thank you Gina
  • Cher M. 4 years ago
    When I click on an article that I Like, the "like "changes into "unlike". What am I going wrong?
    • Gina L. 4 years ago
      I was told you had 'liked' my post. I have no response. It is not giving credit. There is no choice for an unlike. Maybe you should go into your files delete the Recyclebank and download it again. Best of luck.
  • Gina L. 4 years ago
    Many of the packaging problems stem from government safety issues. Think back, or research, the Tylenol scandal. Now almost every food item must be secure to sell. It is not what anyone truly wants. It is what society has become.
  • Linda W. 5 years ago
    I am actually impressed by aseptic cartons, think of the long life they have, and how companies can recycle them - all we need now is to convince the collectors to recycle them... for instance, a fruit nectar I used to buy in the grocery store cost $4.00 a glass bottle, but I can buy it at the dollar store in aseptic cartons for - guess - a dollar! It is shelf stable for long periods of time, is more lightweight than the glass, won't break if dropped... I called my hauler about these cartons and they knew nothing about aseptic packaging! But they do accept it, just no one knows! I want this packaging used more, not less!
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