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.