14.7 Waste: Food Packaging

Author: Lauren Kennedy

ABSTRACT: The useless over-packaging of our food not only causes harm to the environment, but also to human health.


As Earth’s landfills and waterways become consumed and clogged with plastic bags, take out containers, straws, coffee cups and more; it is evident that food packaging has outweighed a number of other problems. The waste and pollution food packaging leaves behind is horrid, in today’s western society everything consumers buy is over packaged from the harmful plastics and wraps to the additives like phthalates to give plastic its flexibility, bisphenol linings that coat aluminum cans or perfluorinated chemicals which lets paper and fiber packaging to hold liquid.

Food packaging is extremely dangerous to our health; so why is it so hard to imagine daily life without it? Packaging used to be non-existent for food until convenience took over conscious. As food became less local and able to be mass produced to feed more people in one area food turned into highly processed and packaged to keep up with demand. Packaging technology kept evolving to keep up with the pace of processed food being produced, this not only increased the making of packaging but also no concern for the environment and human health.

Most food packaging can be broken down into four major types; Plastic packaging, This includes a wide variety of plastic types, from Styrofoam to clear plastic “clamshell” packages to the lids on takeout coffee cups. The raw materials used to make plastic packaging may be harmful to our health, or there may be harmful chemicals added to the plastic to make it more functional. In addition, metal packaging includes aluminum and other metal cans that both food and beverages are packaged in. Metal cans are often lined with anti-corrosive substances that can leach into our food and affect our health.

Paper and fiber packaging the increasingly common “tetra” pack cartons, other types of cartons and take-out food containers. Like other types of packaging, paper/fiber packaging often is lined or coated with substances to make it more functional (able to hold liquids). Finally, glass packaging such as glass bottles and other containers. We do not realize how much food, food miles, and food packaging make up our carbon footprint. Food accounts for 10-30% of a household’s carbon footprint. Consequently, production accounts for 68% of food emissions, while transportation accounts for 5%. Food production emissions consist mainly of CO2, N2O, and CH4, which result primarily from agricultural practices. Eliminating the transport of food for one year could save the GHG equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, while shifting to a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles. Containers and packaging make up a major portion of municipal solid waste, generating 82.2 million tons in 2018 (28.1 percent of total generation).

Figure 1: food packaging waste by weight that ends up in our landfills

The ban on plastic bags by major supermarket chains is a great move toward sustainability by forcing us to be prepared with our own reusable and enviro-friendly shopping bags. There is still, however, a long way to go. When shopping, look for items with little or no packaging and choose not to bag your fruit and vegetables in plastic bags. Go for biodegradable or reusable packaging when possible. When storing food, opt for reusable glass containers instead of plastic. When it comes to beverages, say no to bottled water and come prepared to your favourite café with a keep cup in hand. Avoid straws when possible and choose not to have a carry bag if you don’t really need one. If eating out, bring your own takeaway Tupperware instead of asking for a plastic container.

As consumers, we have an opportunity to choose the materials we feel most comfortable with and to ask companies and retailers to do better. Better packaging materials and better design could mean less waste and fewer harmful chemicals. Asking our government to enact stronger regulations around packaging and plastics. Most importantly, we need to re-think food packaging and single-use food service items, making human health and the environment the priority over convenience. These small steps may seem minute, but if we collectively begin to become aware of how we are producing and generating waste, we may slowly start to see a move toward a more sustainable planet.


Carbon footprint factsheet. (n.d.). Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet

Containers and packaging: Product-specific data. (2021, January 05). Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/containers-and-packaging-product-specific-data

Food packaging is bad for the environment. (2020, September 23). Retrieved March 03, 2021, from  https://foodprint.org/reports/the-foodprint-of-food-packaging/   

Fox, E. (2019, May 28). Food packaging is full of toxic chemicals – here’s how it could affect your health. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/28/plastics-toxic-america-chemicals-packaging

Solo. (n.d.). The problem with food packaging waste. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.solo.com.au/latest_news/the-problem-with-food-packaging-waste/


Lauren Kennedy is a first year Creative Industry student at Ryerson University.

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