Approximately 60% of all plastics produced worldwide are used for food packaging (
That means that of the 380 million metric tons of plastics produced in 2015, 228 million metric tons were food packaging alone (
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.
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 (
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 (
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 (
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 (
Exposure to chemicals in food packaging is unavoidable, but efforts to reduce the transfer of these chemicals into food are vital for human health (
Plastic food packaging poses innumerable environmental and public health risks, including accumulation in the oceans and disruption to your endocrine system. Thankfully, eco-friendly alternatives are on the rise.
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 (
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 (
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 (
Shop for glass containers online
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.
Shop for stainless steel containers online
Bamboo is biodegradable and possesses many desirable traits for food packaging, as it’s durable and heat resistant (
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.
Shop for bamboo containers online
4. Rice husk
Rice husk is a byproduct of rice farming that’s low cost, renewable, and biodegradable (
In one study, rice husk was shown to have bio-adsorbent properties, which means that it absorbs pollutants from its surrounding environment (
Products made from this compound include sealable lunch boxes and shatterproof serving bowls.
Shop for rice husk containers online
5. Gelatin films
Gelatin films are becoming more popular for food packaging due to their nontoxic properties, low cost, and reliable film-forming capacity (
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), gelatin is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as a food additive (
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 (
Microcrystalline cellulose (MCC) and rosin-grafted cellulose nanocrystals (r-CNCs) are two main fillers for gelatin food packaging.
Glass containers, food-grade stainless steel, bamboo, rice husk, and cellulose-filled gelatin films are some of the most eco-friendly food packaging on the market.
Conventional plastics contain many additives, such as stabilizers, fillers, plasticizers, flame retardants, and — more recently — antimicrobials (
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 (
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 (
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
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a plasticizer additive used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a material used in many plastic products (
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 (
3. Plastic takeout containers
The widespread use of disposable takeaway containers contributes to large amounts of waste that leads to pollution and environmental toxins (
It’s best to personally avoid — and work to phase out — single-use plastics, BPA-containing packaging, and takeaway containers due to their negative consequences for the environment and human health.
- 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 (
Shop for some of these products online
To reduce your use of petroleum-based, single-use plastics, choose reusable packages and use products made with metal, glass, or plant-based materials.
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.
Several companies have taken a stance against petroleum-based plastics and provide a variety of eco-friendly, sustainable, and biodegradable food packages.
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.