Why food packaging?

Food packaging exists to prevent decay or contamination, to make transportation easier and to extend the shelf life of foods. Marketers use it to display brands and information. Packaging has become important to the efficient distribution of food to towns and cities. Innovations in the packaging industry have resulted in a greater variety of products and convenience foods. The high level of competition and marketing that we enjoy today depends on attractive packaging. Well, some of us enjoy it. I have to say that I am sometimes overwhelmed by the many choices available. So It takes me much longer than it should to do my shopping!

Is our food packaging safe?

To make sure that the chemicals used in packaging don’t leak into foods or liquids, Food Standards of Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ ) analysed 65 foods and beverages packaged in glass, paper, plastic or cans, for chemicals. These included phthalatesperfluorinated compoundsepoxidized soybean oil (ESBO) (used to soften and enable the plastic to form a good seal with glass), semicarbazideacrylonitrile and vinyl chloride. Their survey was reassuring, with no chemicals found in the food aside from very low levels of ESBO which do not affect our health. Similar findings have been published by the corresponding US FDA & European EFSA

Bisphenol A (BPA) is used in polycarbonate which is a material used to make food containers like returnable beverage bottles, baby's bottles, tableware and storage containers. Residues of BPA are also present in epoxy resins used to make protective coatings and linings for food and drink cans and vats. Small amounts of BPA can leak into food, but not in large enough amounts to be harmful to health. However, this has been a controversial topic because some tests on animals seem to prove otherwise.

Is it recycled?

Food packagingDo you ever marvel at the amount of packaging you bring home from the supermarket? I know I do, and sometimes its hard to decide what to do with it all. Today, much of this packaging is recycled and recyclable, but do you know which bin you should put it in? The symbol you see above is not advice that your packaging is recyclable. Rather, it tells you that some recyclables have been used in creating the packaging or the product you have purchased. If there is a % figure in the center, it tells you the percentage of recycled materials that have been used.

Always check what materials are recycled with your local garbage collection service. Not all areas have the same recycling facilities.

1. Cardboard boxes

These are invariably made from recycled paper and you can place them in your curbside recycle bin provided they are clean. If you are not sure whether your shiny box is recyclable, scratch it with your fingernail. If it is a waxy, a layer of wax will peel off, and you can put it in the trash. if there is no residue under your fingernails, you can safely recycle it. Tear off any greasy or dirty parts of your pizza boxes and put them in the trash. Recycle the clean parts only. This is because grease will contaminate the cleaner papers and boxes being recycled.

That’s easy.  But what about the plastics?

2. Frozen Food Packaging

Most frozen foods come in plastic bags, or boxes. They are not recyclable because the plastic in them typically contains additives or layers of other materials to protect the food from freezer burn. The additives or layers on the bags are contaminants in the plastic film recycling process and could ruin a whole batch of recycled material.  Due to the coating on the boxes, it is not possible to pulp them in the way that other packaging can be pulped. Chuck them in the trash that goes to the land-fill.

3. Plastic Bags

Bread bags and Ziploc bags cannot be recycled in the curbside bin. Make sure they are clean and return them to the supermarket recycling bin (if you can find one) along with your plastic shopping bags. Whatever the type of plastic bag, they should NEVER be put in the curbside bin. They get mangled in the recycling machinery and can wreck it.

4. Cling Film or Glad Wrap

Again this needs to go in the landfill if dirty. It could go in with your plastic bags for recycling if clean.

5. Cans

Most cans have an epoxy resin lining. Sometimes it is visible but it is often transparent and therefore undetectable. They are recyclable so you can wash them out and put them in your recycle bin.

6. Retort Pouches

The military designed the retort pouch so that they could feed soldiers in the field, Meals Ready to Eat or MREs. The sterile packaging has flexible plastic and foil layers which cannot be recycled. The public has not been quick to accept this packaging. As a result, they are often found inside a carton for marketing purposes. If you have some of this packaging at home, put it in the trash that goes to landfill.

7. Vacuum Packaging

I have been seeing more of this kind of packaging in the supermarket lately. It is another way to increase the shelf life of fresh food products. Meat can be kept fot 10 days, or longer if additional methods are used. Oxygen is removed from the packaging. That can affect the presentation, so it is not suitable for all products. The color and shape of meat is changed, but once the packet is opened it returns to its normal shape and color. One advantage is that meat can be marinated within the package and becomes tenderized. It also allows for new products to be developed. Vacuum packaging is not usually recyclable due to food residues that contaminate - check locally.

8. Modified Atmosphere Packaging

MAP packaging is a more flexible method of extending the shelf life of fresh, perishable foods such as cheeses, cooked meats and seafood. One advantage is that there is no need for additives. It uses a blend of pure oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen which replaces the air in the package to prevent spoilage. The mixture of gases can be optimized for the specific product. To achieve this the package needs to be well sealed. The polymer film will be different depending on the product. If the film is clean, send it back to the supermarket for recycling with your other plastic bags, otherwise put it in the trash.

9. Laminated bags

Chips and snacks these days come in multi-layered bags. The first layer stops the oil from soaking through to the outside of the bag. The next layer is printable so that brand pictures, colors and text can be added. The outer layer gives a glossy look to the product. The packaging is very thin and light. It is impermeable to the gas that is used to protect the chips in transit. This gas is usually nitrogen and it makes the package look as though it has more contents. Compare the weights before you buy! These packages are not recyclable right now but may become so in the future.

10. Liquid Paper Board

Milk and juice gable-top cartons are made from this stuff.  It is  a strong material having a layer on both sides.  Low density polyethelyne makes it waterproof. They can go in the recycling bin.

11. Aseptic packages (Ultra High Temperature or long life pack)

Long life products such as milk and custards come in these packages. They have five layers - three of plastic, one of foil and one of cardboard. They do not need refrigeration before they are opened, because they are heat-treated before packaging. That makes them environmentally desirable.  Although it is a difficult process to separate the layers, they are recyclable. Check with your local waste management service if you are not sure which bin these go in.

12. Glass

You can recycle glass jars and bottles in your curbside recycling bin.  Note though, that the glass in these receptacles is easy to melt down. Do not put other types of glass such as drinking glasses or window glass in the recycle bin. They are heat resistant and harder to melt down.

13. Expanded polystyrene (EPS)

Supermarkets use foam packaging for meat trays. But we find it more often in non-food products such as toys, electronics and white goods. It is not usually recyclable. Take it to a specialist or put it in the trash.

Packaging in the future

Many consumers care about how packaging is affecting our environment. This is because of the threat to marine life and birds from plastic, as well as the risk of deforestation from the increased demand for paper packaging. For this reason food manufacturers are increasingly using their green policies and use of sustainable packaging as a selling point.

In the future I believe that all food packaging will by law have to be recyclable or biodegradable. As the food industry competes for business, I think we are likely to see new, lighter and more easily recyclable materials in use. In South Africa, Kellog's have recently designed a stand-up bag which only uses 20% of the material needed to make the box, for their new cereal product. They had noticed that many South Africans removed the box before putting it in their shopping bag, because they were walking and the box was too awkward to carry. I think this method of packaging may well catch on in rest of the world.

Packaging reduces food wastage

Modern methods of packaging reduce, to some extent, the large amounts of food that goes to waste in the western world. In years to come we may see some revolutionary methods of recycling which might produce interesting products.

One way to avoid having to recycle packaging though, is to not have any in the first place. Recently some "no packaging" shops have opened up. Customers bring their own containers. Environmentalists will love it, but most people don't have the time or the budget to shop this way.

Perhaps in the future we will order online and receive our food in a box full of plastic containers delivered by drone. It would certainly save me a job unpacking the shopping if all I had to do was return my empty containers with the drone. Yes, I think that would work for me!

Maybe technology will be kind enough to record how much of my ingredients I am using and do the ordering for me. Could it even work out where I should shop for the cheapest prices? Of course no packaging would also mean no brands. So I think society will have to change a lot before we can do away with packaging altogether.

What do all those numbers mean?

The symbols below, which you will often find on a piece of plastic, are resin symbols. They only tell you the type of plastic. They do not mean that the item is recyclable. Check with your local waste management if you are not sure - the ticks and crosses apply to recycling in my own locality. Waste management does vary from place to  place.

Type of plastic Characteristics Uses for this plastic Accepted in curbside collection?
PET Polyethylene Terephthalate
Clear, tough, solvent resistant plastic, often used as a fibre. Carbonated soft drink bottles, detergent bottles. tick-yes
HDPE High Density Polyethylene
Very common plastic, usually white or coloured. Milk and cream bottles, shampoo bottles, cleaning products. tick-yes
PVC Polyvinyl Chloride
Hard, rigid plastic, may be clear. Clear cordial and juice bottles. tick-yes
LDPE Low Density Polyethylene
Soft, flexible plastic - waxy surface. Squeeze bottles. tick-yes
pp Polypropylene
Hard but still flexible plastic. Ice cream containers and lids, plastic take away containers. tick-yes
PS Polystyrene
Clear, glassy, rigid, brittle plastic. Yoghurt containers and margarine/ butter containers. tick-yes
OTHER OTHER Includes all other plastics and soft plastics including acrylic and nylon. cross - no
EPS Expanded Polystyrene
Foamed, light weight, energy absoring, heat insulating. Packaging, meat trays, hot drink cups, foam packing 'peanuts'. cross - no


If you are not sure about recycling in your area, check with your local council or authority.

What do they make with packaging that I recycle?

Plastic Packaging


Maddy blogs about retirement and getting older at Maddy at Home


Feature Photo By Original: lyzadanger Derivative work: Diliff (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lyza/49545547) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Potato Chips Image courtesy of Mister GC at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Other - Morguefile


Published by Maddy at Home