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Shopping For And Recognizing Sustainable Food Packaging

Jan 19th, 2023

Whether we pop into the store every few days or do a weekly one-time grocery haul, we all go grocery shopping to some extent because, well, eating food is pretty necessary to our basic life needs.

That, of, course, can look different to everyone. Some of us hop from farmers markets to local produce stands to small storefronts. Some of us do all our shopping at our favorite supermarket. Some of us get our stuff delivered right to our door, and some of us do a little bit of everything.

Talking about sustainability in the grocery shopping realm of our lives is kind of hectic, if we’re being honest — just like it’s complicated to talk about sustainability in every other realm of our lives! There’s a lot going on, a lot of information out there and a lot of different ways you can go about achieving your specific goal. There are different resources, different studies, different aspects of the same issue and, just, so much to take into account when we try to look at one part of our daily lives. We could focus on the chemical makeup of the product itself, the methods of transportation, the ethics of the manufacturer, the scale of production, the water usage of a crop, etc… 

All that to say that it’s hard to find a perfect answer to a complex issue like food consumption, so let’s just focus on one aspect of it for now, and we’ll see where it goes from there! In this case: the packaging that the food comes in!

How to look for sustainable food packaging 

Natural packaging

When we talk about natural packaging, we’re referring to the kind of packaging that, quite literally, grows on trees. 

We’re talking about the skins on bananas, peels on oranges, skins on apples, husks on coconuts, scales on fish, pods on beans and any other kind of protective layer that naturally comes with a piece of food or produce. If the food, produce or item can be stored (in a safe, hygienic and efficient way) with its natural packaging, purchase those foods instead!

This really applies more to fruits and vegetables that end up being packaged in cling wrap, shrink wrap or plastic when there’s no need for it. You know the type — bunches of bananas covered in a plastic wrap, peeled oranges on a Styrofoam tray with plastic wrap over them, single apples with shrink-wrapped plastic covering their skins, cantaloupes wrapped in plastic netting and the like. 

Now, many fresh produce suppliers have started pre-packaging their produce in plastic in an effort to increase the shelf life of their products, but according to a study done by the Waste and Resources Action Programme in the United Kingdom, the plastic packaging doesn’t actually do much at all. If anything, it just leads to more food waste because the pre-packaged trays or bags of produce force consumers to buy more than they need or want.  Plus, you end up with plastic, paper or Styrofoam that you don’t need or want. 

So, aside from putting more plastics in landfills, pre-packaged produce can cause a higher level of food waste, too. All in all, it’s a good reason to ditch the packaged products and buy your produce in its natural form, if you can! 


If you have the option to choose between plastic packaging and glass packaging, ask yourself what you plan on doing with the product after you’re finished using it. 

Though both can be recycled (with the exception of some plastics), it’s far easier to recycle glass than it is to recycle plastic. Plus, glass can be reused for many other purposes, and you can even donate glass products to thrift stores or donation centers for others to use. 

Glass is made from natural materials and can be recycled indefinitely, while plastic’s chemical structure can break down after being recycled over and over again. Glass is impermeable and is great for storing both hot and cold liquids, while plastic is porous and can leak harmful chemicals into food or drink if enough heat is applied. 

As with everything, though, there are exceptions. While glass is a much better option for recycling and reuse, it does cost more to transport glass products and, therefore, has a higher environmental footprint associated with transportation and storage. These are certainly things to consider in your search for sustainable products, so keep these in mind. 

All that to say that if you’re shopping for sauces, beverages, canned goods or pickled produce, you have options. If you’re in need of glass jars to use for hobbies, crafts, storage solutions and the like, then by all means, use the glass jars! If you’re planning on properly recycling whatever you get, then go for the plastic. If you’re tossing your items in a landfill, get a recycling container instead and start recycling. 

Cardboard boxes

Many food products are stored in cardboard boxes, from pasta to rice to cereal to candy, spices, and more. 

Cardboard is easy to recycle as long as it’s clean and free of grease and food waste. If the boxes don’t have plastic packaging inside, even better! 

Buy food products that don’t use a wax coating inside the cardboard (like milk, liquid eggs and other liquid and dairy products), as those are not recyclable and will end up in a landfill. 

Some cardboard boxes — such as the ones used for pasta and rice — have a small window cut into the front with a clear plastic screen across it. Though it’s not 100% necessary, be sure to remove that plastic screen before you recycle the box to reduce the amount of contaminants in the recycling bin. If you can buy a box without a window, even better!

Bulk items

Finally, if you have the option to buy your items by weight from a bulk bin, then go for that! Most stores allow you to bring your own containers which you can use over and over again as needed. Plus, you won’t be buying any packaging at all, which is a huge bonus!

Though there are always other factors to consider when looking for the most sustainable grocery option, these packaging tips are a great place to start making those small differences in your consuming habits that can really add up over time.

Good luck!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/AlbanyColley

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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