Alternatives to Plastic Food Packaging

In this article, we’ll go through the most eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging, the benefits of going plastic-free, and the best available plant-based options.

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Swapping out your plastic food packaging with plastic-free alternatives is a simple way to reduce your business’ carbon footprint. In this article, we’ll go through the most eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging, the benefits of going plastic-free, and the best available plant-based options.

Why should you switch to plastic-free packaging?

Unless we stop buying so much plastic packaging and fuelling the demand for more, the global plastic crisis will continue to spin out of control.

78 million tons of plastic packaging are produced worldwide every year, and only 14% of that is recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, in the ocean, or as litter after just a single-use. At the rate we’re going, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050

It’s not just the environment that you’ll benefit by going plastic-free; it’s also your business. 88% of US and UK customers would like companies to help them be more eco-friendly in their day-to-day lives. 

Going plastic-free where possible seems like a no-brainer — but before we get into your options, we need to establish what plastic-free actually means. 

What does plastic-free mean?

Plastic-free materials are those which are not made through polymerisation or polycondensation processes. They’re made from renewable sources that are found in nature.

It’s important to point out that when we say plastic-free, we do not mean biodegradable bioplastics. Though they’re made using renewable sources and are built to last for a shorter period of time than conventional plastics, bioplastics are still plastics, given that they are made through polymerisation. Just like other plastics, the end of their lifecycle can take a toll on the environment. Studies have shown that biodegradable bioplastic carrier bags can stay intact in soil and seawater for at least 3 years. Hung up in the open air, they break down into microplastics, which can harm human health and damage animal ecosystems.

It’s also worth noting that it’s not enough to pick out any non-plastic packaging alternative, however far it may have travelled or however much energy it took to produce it. You should always aim to find more sustainable replacements for your plastic packaging.

Are plastic-free packaging alternatives just as effective? 

Many plastic-free packaging alternatives perform just as well as plastic. For example, bagasse is water-resistant, microwaveable, freezer-safe, and more insulating than plastic packaging. 

Non-plastic options may even be better for your business, as they show that you’re serious about reducing your environmental impact and suggest that your product is high quality.

Image credit: Unsplash

What is the most eco-friendly alternative to plastic food packaging? 

Technically, reducing the amount of packaging you use and reusing it where possible is the most eco-friendly option. This ties in with one of our key messages of Reduce, don’t Replace. 

Reducing and reusing come first in the 3Rs of recycling because they minimise waste before it can even be created. Even the most environmentally sound forms of waste management, like recycling and composting, have a carbon footprint, and reducing and reusing means you don’t need to go through these processes.

Failing that, recycled packaging is the next best thing. This is because recycling extends the life cycle of a particular material and so its carbon footprint is reduced with each use. Because of its lower cradle-to-grave environmental impact, it performs better in life cycle assessments than packaging that is thrown away after just one use. For example, recycled paper has a 47% reduced carbon footprint over the course of its life-cycle compared with paper that goes to landfill after a single-use. 

It also takes more energy to create new products from scratch than to recycle old ones. Making paper out of recycled paper uses 40% less energy than making it from virgin wood fibres. 

However, recycled food packaging is not widely available and it’s not realistic to expect you to be able to reduce or reuse all your packaging across your business. Keep reading to find out about the plant-based options which can meet your packaging needs.

Alternatives to plastic food packaging

Alternatives to plastic food containers 

Packaging materialCO2 emissions per kgEquivalent in miles driven
Plastic (polypropylene)1.95kg – 3.5kg5.85 – 10.4 miles
Kraft paper0.455kg1.4 miles
Cardboard0.538kg1.6 miles
Bagasse0.036kg0.1 miles

Kraft paper containers

71% of consumers are more likely to buy from brands that use paper or cardboard packaging.

Kraft paper is biodegradable, recyclable, and compostable in industrial composting conditions within 12 weeks. It’s a strong packaging material and can withstand high temperatures and moisture.

You can buy Kraft paper food containers here

Cardboard containers

Cardboard is a strong and durable packaging material that’s also compostable, recyclable, moisture-proof and heat resistant. 

You can buy cardboard food containers here

Image credit: Unsplash

Bagasse containers

Bagasse is grease and water resistant, freezer-safe, and more insulating than plastics, though it’s not ideal for holding extremely hot foods. It’s a waste product left behind from sugarcane extraction, so it’s biodegradable and compostable at home. 

You can buy bagasse food containers here

Alternatives to plastic food wrappers/film

Beeswax wraps 

Non-plastic wrappers and film are hard to come by, but beeswax wraps are the best available option out there. 

Beeswax wraps are washable and reusable. They’re also compostable and biodegradable. They are made from 100% natural ingredients and are breathable to keep food fresh for longer. 

You can buy beeswax wraps on a roll or individually, but given their price, it’s understandable if you can’t swap out cling film just yet.

Alternatives to thermal box liners

Thermal liners made from feathers

Pluumo produces thermal box liners made from surplus feathers from the poultry industry. Because they are made from a waste product, they don’t deplete non-renewable resources. They are naturally insulating and can keep the contents of a box under 8 degrees for over 72 hours. Once you’re finished with your liners, they are industrially compostable or you can return them to Pluumo to extend their life-cycle. 

Alternatives to single-use plastic bags

Kraft paper bags

If you’re looking to swap out plastic bags for takeaways, Kraft paper bags have a greatly reduced environmental impact over the course of their lifecycle. 

You can buy Kraft paper bags here

Alternatives to single-use plastic cutlery

Wooden cutlery

Wooden cutlery is commercially compostable and biodegradable. It’s suitable for both hot and cold foods. 

You can shop Vegware’s range of wooden cutlery, which is made from sustainably-sourced birchwood, here.

Bamboo cutlery

Bamboo cutlery is also biodegradable and commercially compostable. 

You can buy bamboo cutlery here.

Alternatives to plastic straws

Paper straws 

Now that single-use plastic straws have been banned in the UK, paper straws may be your next best non-plastic option. They are commercially compostable and biodegradable with no human interference within 6 months on land and 12 months in the ocean. 

You can buy paper straws here

Rice straws

Rice straws are commercially compostable and biodegradable within 100 days. They last in a drink for up to 5 hours. 

You can buy rice straws here

Conclusion

Your priority should always be to reduce the packaging you use. Before you start replacing your plastic packaging with non-plastic alternatives, you should evaluate how much your business really needs it and where you could do without it.

For example, it’s usually not necessary to offer disposable cutlery with takeaway food or disposable straws with drinks, so you should always ask your customers whether they need them before you provide them. 

However, if you can’t reduce your business’ use of plastic packaging any further, then you should look into the non-plastic alternatives listed above. 

Sophie Comninos
Author: Sophie Comninos

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