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Which food grade packaging materials are recyclable?

As threats of climate change become more dire, restaurant owners and food operators are swiftly adjusting packaging practices to limit contributions to plastic pollution. A major concern for food grade packaging lies in how much plastic ends up polluting local waterways. 

These often break down into microplastics, which are defined as fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length. It’s estimated that more than 42,000 tonnes of these small fragments are deposited into the environment each year, causing problems for wildlife and ecosystems around the world.

Back on shore, single-use plastic food packaging in landfills may not fully complete its decomposition process for at least 450 years. This is also highly dependent on the plastics used in the initial creation process. In the UK alone, households have reported using over 500,000 metric tonnes of plastic food packaging annually. More so, only one-third of that waste is being recycled. 

While it may not be possible to eliminate plastics from your establishment entirely, investing in sustainable food-grade packaging that is recyclable can make a significant impact.  

Understanding sustainable food grade packaging materials 

Packaging is an essential component of the food sector and is currently the only solution available to facilitate the transportation of food. Meals must be protected from any possible contaminants, tampering, and damage from delivery. 

To this end, researchers estimate food packaging accounts for over 66% of all total packaging in circulation. Notably, in 2020, the takeaway food industry in China generated 1.6 million tons of plastic waste. 

Research indicates the takeaway delivery market will have 2.64 billion users four years from now – something restaurants, fast food chains, and delivery firms should take note of. Clearly, with an increase in takeaway deliveries, it is essential for the food industry to consider eco-friendly packaging alternatives. 

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Examples of sustainable food grade packaging materials

Here are examples of food packaging solutions that meet sustainable criteria:

Compostable packaging

Takeaway packaging that is compostable is far kinder to the environment than its plastic counterpart. Made of various plant-based materials, such as maize, corn starch, and sugarcane, compostable packaging breaks down into its organic components, leaving no negative impact on the environment.   

However, compostable takeaway packaging is designed in such a way that it will only break down under very specific circumstances. It requires the right microbial conditions, oxygen and moisture levels, and warmth, as well as a significant amount of time to break down. As a result, the conditions required for it to break down have to be carefully controlled. 

For this reason, some compostable packaging may not be suitable for home composting. Therefore, if you opt for compostable takeaway containers, it is essential to label the materials correctly. This ensures consumers understand whether they can compost the packaging at home or which bin it must be placed in for correct disposal. 

Compostable food packaging materials include:

  • Polylactic acid (PLA): PLA is made from the fermentation of carbohydrates from renewable resources such as maize, corn starch, and sugarcane. The fermentation produces resin filaments that have similar characteristics to petroleum-based plastic.
  • Cellulose: As a plant-based material, cellulose is compostable and recyclable. The fibres making up the packaging material are created from renewable resources such as wood, pulp, bamboo, and hemp, making it a superior alternative to traditional plastics. 
  • Bamboo: Takeaway items made from bamboo, whether it be food packaging or fast-food cutlery, are one of the most sustainable material options available. Bamboo is a rapidly growing, biodegradable, and highly durable resource for packaging materials. 
  • Recycled paper: Paper-based packaging is typically thought of as a more sustainable alternative to plastic since it is biodegradable and can be recycled or composted.
  • Bagasse/sugarcane fibre: Bagasse is a fibrous material left behind after harvesting sugarcane. Bagasse contains between 40% and 50% cellulose, the primary strengthening material in wood. More so, it only takes up to 60 days for bagasse to decompose, while plastic takes hundreds of years and styrofoam almost never decomposes by itself.
  • Wheat straw fibre: Wheat straw is a renewable alternative to solid plastics. It is a by-product of the wheat harvesting process and can be used to create BPA-free, food grade packaging. 

Paper and cardboard takeaway packaging

Paper and cardboard-based food-grade packaging is a low-cost and lightweight option. Both paper and cardboard are widely recyclable and compostable and will not break down into harmful microplastics. 

However, unless paper-based food packaging is coated, it is unlikely to be as durable as other materials. Specifically, it may weaken when in direct contact with moist foods and liquids. For dry, non-oily, or moist foods, paper and cardboard might just be a fantastic option to cut costs, all while adding a small injection of sustainability to your business.

According to estimates, around 15 billion trees are used every year to produce paper products, with roughly 24 trees required to produce a ton of virgin paper. Therefore, those looking into paper and cardboard-based food packaging should ensure it is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. The FSC offers a third-party certification system that allows businesses to communicate their commitment to responsibly sourced wood.

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Ensuring your takeout packaging is disposed of properly

Research shows that 71% of Americans report being confused by the nearly 10,000 local recycling programmes within the US. This is likely because each programme has its own set of guidelines on what can be recycled and how. Therefore, it’s essential that your establishment and its consumers are up-to-date on how to recycle takeaway containers correctly.

It is advisable to reach out to your local recycling centre for guidance on what materials are accepted and what condition they should be in. If the incorrect materials are sent in, they can contaminate an entire stream of recyclable waste, which leads to it ending up in a landfill. 

Additionally, you can consider labelling your takeout containers appropriately with recycling symbols. These symbols tell consumers what they should do with empty takeout containers to ensure they’re disposed of correctly, while also showcasing a business’s commitment to sustainability.