What’s The Most Sustainable Food Packaging?

Packaging is a pretty complex issue because when we talk about sustainable packaging of any kind, we are also raising issues all over the spectrum, including socio-economic status, governance and policy, natural resource management, food preservation, waste management, and supply chains, just to name a few.

All of these factors must be accounted for when looking for best practices which essentially means that there isn’t a blanket answer to sustainable food packaging.

This post contains affiliate links. We earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. We only share brands we truly believe in.

So what is sustainable food packaging then?

Let’s start by having a look at some of what is out there. Like our sustainable living tips, these are just examples of sustainable food packaging that may or may not work for you. Not the end all be all. 

1. Zero waste packaging

Zero Waste Food Storage Eco Bag Top View — Photo.Pin

From creating a zero waste bathroom, a zero waste pantry, or an entirely zero waste kitchen — the zero waste movement attacks packaging head on, and seems to be one of the best solutions for addressing our enormous waste problem. And science agrees.

It all rests on the 5 Rs — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. And it’s pretty simple and elegant too. However, it does require adopting some new habits which are conversely one of the most difficult things for humans to do. Not to mention the discomfort we might feel adopting some of these new habits.

To work, a zero waste approach to packaging requires a combination of package-free options like bulk bins, and reusables like reusable cotton bags and glass jars. It may also require a little bit of courage and lots of conviction.

What we like

One of the things we love about this option is that it asks us to be more mindful about the products we reach for and the packaging they come in. From the meat counter to pantry staples like pasta and flour,  to the bakery or our favorite coffee shops — we can choose package-free and bring our reusable containers instead. In doing so, we reduce or even eliminate the plastic bags from the produce section, the trays and plastic film from the meats and fish, the paper/plastic film combos from the middle aisles, and so much more.

What we don’t like

There is a catch though. For starters, the world as we know it is simply not designed for living a life with less packaging. Some major grocers even ban the use of reusables in their bulk sections! The addition of a pandemic has likely made this more difficult for many.

Reusables also require resources to be manufactured. For example, cotton is an especially thirsty crop where reusable bags are concerned. And plastic tumblers are still made of plastic. So are polyester bags. 

That aside, they also require water to be washed or laundered. And even though water is technically a renewable resource — with which we have taken some arguably insane liberties where sustainability is concerned — water consumption remains a factor here too.

So what’s the verdict on zero waste packaging then? We still think it’s a win-win. It encourages mindful consumption and reduces the amount of waste associated with food packaging.

There is something to be said about trying to be flawlessly zero waste. On that, we think it best to just do our very best.  Even the most influential zero waste advocates admit this is not possible.

Where to shop

For zero waste essentials of your own checkout Well Earth Goods and EarthHero, both offer bags & sacks made from organic cotton, food storage containers, and lots more. You could also check out Package Free and get started with one of their Zero Waste Market Kits. etee, also offers beeswax wraps that are great for keeping foods fresh at home and for packing lunches too! Not sure how to use beeswax wraps, this handy guide will help.

2. rPET Recycled Plastic

Chopped vegetables in plastic containers — PhotoPin

Plastic is a major no-no in our book. “You can’t live with it, you can’t live without it” aside, our plastic problem is actually outrageous, and really calls into question human intellect and sanity if we’re being completely honest. Do we use it? Yes. Do we like it? Absolutely not. The same goes for recycled plastic.

What we like

Is recycled plastic better than virgin plastics? Sure. Is it wonderful when it is fished out of the oceans and turned into something we need? Definitely. And for that, we give rPET a big A for effort. But it is also hard to ignore that virgin plastic consumption continues to grow, despite these efforts, and that no decisive action has been taken to limit the use of plastic to the strictly essential.

For those who are still skeptical, we would like to refer them to all of the plastics floating in the middle of the Atlantic and the Pacific right now. Along with the 91% of plastic that doesn’t get recycled at all. This is unacceptable and rPET is not the solution.

What we don’t like

Moreover, plastics can be recycled no more than a couple of times which means that they eventually have to wind up filling up landfills whether they’ve been recycled or not.

3. PBAT

Biodegradable plastic cup. Glasses in compostable bioplastic, plastic free. — Photo.Pin

This is virgin plastic made from fossil fuels that are designed to biodegrade, and it’s going to have to be a no for us.

What we like

Is it really awesome that plastics can be engineered to degrade? Yes. 

What we don’t like

What is not so awesome is that being biodegradable does not make PBAT a sustainable packaging option. Simply making something like plastic biodegradable and calling it sustainable shows a lack of understanding. Just like its non-biodegradable counterparts, PBAT can only go on to landfill — where it will take up space and break down into its petrochemical composite parts.

4. Bioplastics

Creative flat lay of plastic disposable tableware in wooden cups — Photo.Pin

Bioplastics are biodegradable and/or compostable polymers (plastic) that can be engineered from all sorts of stuff like corn, sugarcane, soy, and algae. They can be categorized as: natural where they are made from starches, protein, chitosan (derived from shellfish), and cellulose; synthetic like PHA (another “degradable” polymer); or non-natural like polyvinyl alcohol (a.k.a PVA, commonly used to make dishwasher tabs).

What we like

Some of these materials are designed to degrade in a landfill without leaving behind potentially harmful contaminants. Some of them are even edible — made of algae, gelatin, or chitosan.  

What we don’t like

The thing is some of them do leave behind potentially harmful residue, and in the case of corn or soy-based alternatives, demand can affect the price of these staple crops. The production methods used to make them can also be very resource intensive and involve potentially harmful chemicals.

The best thing to do here is to make sure the bioplastics being used will not leave any harmful compounds behind, and that they are certified by a reputable third party for their sustainability. Certifications from the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) are a good place to start.

5. Compostable packaging

Fresh vegetable in compostable sugarcane containers with cornstarch cutlery — Photo.Pin

Similarly, compostable packaging can be a little tricky. Compostable packaging made from materials like paper, cardboard, and bioplastics is pretty much everywhere. You can find them at your local coffee shops, the cafeteria, or in your takeout but don’t let the compostable label fool you.

What we like

We love that some of these products are actually compostable and can be broken down and added to a compost heap right at home. 

What we don’t like

Conversely, some may not be compostable at all or require industrial conditions for composting which is not available to everyone. One of the biggest concerns is misleading claims. In certain cases, “compostable” packaging can be lined with a thin film that is not suitable for composting.

It’s really easy to get caught up in the excitement of finally having more sustainable options to easily reach for. Sadly, we may simply be supporting unethical companies and contaminated waste streams. Here again, it is best to shop with reputable brands with certifications to boot.

6. Mushroom-based packaging

A box made from mushrooms. Pin
Image: mushroompackaging.com

Fungus-based packaging using mycelium (the root structure of mushrooms) has emerged as a natural alternative to styrofoam. To make it, mycelium and agricultural waste products like wood chips, hemp, and corn husks are combined, pressed into a mold, watered, and left to incubate for 9 days. The final product is dried and heat treated.

What we like

It is biodegradable, easy to produce, and easy to shape into different forms. It is also not as resource intensive as other sustainable food packaging alternatives and is inexpensive to make. It takes just 30 days to compost at home and makes use of materials that might have otherwise been treated as waste.

What we don’t like

It is difficult to find a downside to this but it should not be treated as a one-stop solution for our packaging issues.

7. Glass

Assortment of grains, cereals and pasta in glass jars and vegetables on wooden table — Photo.Pin

Glass is great and we love a glass jar here at The Eco Hub. Glass can be recycled many times without deteriorating in quality (like plastic does), and the jars can be reused at home to store all sorts of stuff in the pantry and elsewhere. They also work perfectly for shopping in the bulk section so no need to buy new ones unless you need them.

What we like

We love how reusable and versatile glass tends to be. No need to worry about leaching either. 

What we don’t like

Mixed glass containers (most commonly found in cosmetics) are not readily recyclable. Neither are heat-proof glass containers like Pyrex. Glass can be pretty fragile too which makes it a less great option, especially where children are frequently involved.

Where to shop

EarthHero has a lovely selection of glass food containers to choose from. You can also find a huge selection of glass on Amazon.

8. Stainless Steel

Stainless Steel food containers. Pin

For children, stainless steel to the rescue! You won’t find many products at the grocery store packaged from stainless steel, but it works great for shopping the bulk section and for holding snacks and such for the little ones. They also work well for packing lunches.

What we like

We love how versatile and durable they are.  Plus there are no concerns over leaching here either and stainless steel is highly recyclable.

What we don’t like

Stainless steel is made of metal that has to be mined, refined, and manufactured into the products we get to enjoy. That means a lot of water, energy, chemicals, and other resources that can quickly kill the vibe. It is still better than plastic.

Where to shop

For this, we’d recommend Life Without Plastic’s stainless steel containers. They have a wide selection of different shapes, sizes, and configurations perfect for packing lunches or for storing leftovers. They also have these cute organic beeswax snack bags. Also, take a look at Dalcini.

9. Aluminum cans

Cropped view of man holding tin cans near box with recycle sign in kitchen — Photo.Pin

Aluminum cans are a lot more likely to be on the shelves at your local grocer and are a lot less likely to break than glass. They are also a great option to consider for sustainable food packaging where bulk, package-free options are not a good fit. And you might find their history pretty interesting like we did.

What we like

Recycling rates are high for metal cans — several paces from plastics. And, you can find a wide variety of canned goods like beans, peas, corn, fruit, and such — great for stocking up on essentials or building emergency kits. 

What we don’t like

There is a concern about small amounts of bisphenol A (BPA) leaching from the resin used to line the cans. Though there is no evidence that these trace amounts pose a risk to human health, some recommend erring on the side of caution until the evidence is fully in.

10. Bamboo

Natural eco-friendly food packaging disposable utensils with dish plate bowl cup and wooden fork spoon / Eco friendly disposable tableware from palm leaf or betel nut , zero waste environment concept — Photo.Pin

Bamboo has risen as a type of super plant in the realm of sustainability. It is everywhere. From our garments to home goods, to food packaging of course! It is well-loved for being durable, versatile, growing easily, and can even bring environmental benefits to the land where it is grown.

What we like

It can also be biodegradable and/or compostable where it is designed to do that but be sure to look for reputable certifications to attest to that. 

What we don’t like

There are concerns about bamboo's growing popularity around the world. Greater demand is affecting local access where it is traditionally used. Greenwashing is a big concern too. Just because something is made from bamboo doesn’t necessarily mean it is better for the planet. There are also concerns about the agricultural practices used to grow and harvest bamboo. As well as the processes and potential chemicals involved in manufacturing.

Where to shop

If you are looking for some great eco-friendly reusable bamboo options check out allBambu and use code ECOHUB20 for 20% off.

11. Cardboard & Paper

Refrigerator shelf with organic juicy strawberries in bio recycled paper boxes and homemade natural milk yogurt. Fridge filled with berries in cardboard containers. Healthy and eco friendly food diet — Photo.Pin

Cardboard is another material that’s emerged as a kind of superstar when it comes to sustainable packaging. Especially where online shopping is so pervasive now. As for its merits as sustainable food packaging, it isn’t so great because it is often paired with plastic bags to preserve freshness.

Similarly, paper packaging is not so great for food products because it really only works well for the deli counter, and restaurants/takeout. Brands like noissue offer lots of great mindfully crafted options for the latter, including customizable food wrapping paper that is compostable, and made from uncoated FSC-certified paper and water-based food-safe inks.

What we like

Still, there is a lot to love about both. Cardboard is highly recyclable, reusable, and can be made of post-consumer materials which are fantastic. It is also lightweight and some of it can even be composted. Paper is also convenient, lightweight, and can be composted in some cases where it is not filled with toxic inks or coatings.

What we don’t like

These materials are not very durable where food packaging is concerned, and they are mostly designed to be disposable. We also generate so much waste, and it is actually pretty energy intensive to recycle or compost all of this stuff in the first place if it is even an option.

A final word on sustainable food packaging

For sustainable packaging for food, it looks like the inevitable thing to do is to actually try to reduce the amount of food packaging we use in the first place. We like to look for solutions that keep things as they are, and the responsibility seems to be going to scientists somewhere in a lab who are supposed to science us out of this problem.

Though materials like eco-friendly bioplastics, compostable paper packaging, and mycelium may be promising, the truth is we as consumers have to make an effort too. We cannot do it without the help of food manufacturers, grocery stores, and the most important people who grow our food: the farmers of course!

So we’d recommend referring to the 5 R’s and shopping at the farmers market wherever possible. Bring your own reusable bag(s) there or to the grocery store. We’d also recommend shopping the bulk section and bringing your own containers there too. And if you need stuff that is packaged look for products that are in reusable containers, favoring glass or metal cans where possible.

Most importantly just do your best. What is sustainable food packaging will ultimately depend on what is available to you and what you can maintain in the long run. If you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article – sharing is caring 🙂!

sustainable-food-packaging-PINPin

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *