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The Problem with Plastic Food Packaging

Sharon Palmer

Most plastics are not recycled; they’re filling landfills, the oceans, marine life, and even our bodies. Consumers play a critical role.

I, like most Americans, am a victim of wishful, or aspirational recycling, especially when it comes to plastics. It’s a thing—really. All week, my family diligently separates our recycles from the trash. They they’re tossed into the blue recycling bin, soon to be whisked away to the next phase of life when they become new products. Out of sight, out of mind, but there’s a definite satisfaction knowing we’ve done our part for the environment, having saved our discards from the local dump.

Or so we think.

Environmental Impact

The reality is only 9% of the more than 9 billion tons of virgin plastic produced globally since the 1950s has been recycled. The rest ends up in landfills (79%) and dumps, where it is often incinerated (12%), releasing dangerous chemicals into the air, or the natural environment. Every year, 8 million tons of plastic accumulate in the world’s oceans, where it will remain for hundreds of years, slowly breaking down into particles consumed by marine life. It’s estimated that if we continue in this manner, oceans may contain more plastic than fish by 2050 (Science Progress, 2018). Marine species, including sea turtles, fish, whales, and seabirds, are eating plastic, and plastic is polluting beaches and coastlines worldwide. The degree of environmental impact this has is still being determined.


Avoid plastics when possible; even seemingly recyclable items end up in landfills, harming the planet and us.

Human Impact

Plastics are in the human food chain as well. One study detected nine different types of plastics ingested by humans through food or dust. The most common were polypropylene, which is found in bottle caps and rope, and polyethylene from drinking bottles and plastic bags. Along with polystyrene from plastic cups and utensils and Styrofoam cups and coolers, they made up over 95% of detected plastic particles. Study participants were instructed to eat and drink foods and beverages packaged in plastic and seafood. The potential dangers of plastic in the body isn’t yet known, though they have been found in tap water, bottled water, fish, and even beer. One of the pressing questions is whether plastic accumulates in the body and the potential implications.

Purchase a variety of reusable containers to cut down on plastic use.

Market Demand

This wasn’t always the case. Until a couple years ago, more plastics would have been processed for recycling than they are today. Local city and town governments used to ship them to China to process, but China, as part of an antipollution campaign, tightened its standards for materials it would accept and stopped importing a lot of U.S. discards it had accepted before, beginning on January 1, 2018. Tighter standards mean the exclusion of recyclables that contain materials that are not recyclable, such as food remnants or other contaminants, deeming them unmarketable garbage. Some cities are using domestic processors or are sending recyclable materials to other countries, but without the Chinese market, there is no place to send the bulk of our recycles.

Single-use plastic products—things like water bottles, bags, food trays, and shampoo bottles—are the worst offenders because they have no place to go. It costs less to take them to a landfill than to pay to have them sorted, transported, and taken into a facility for processing. Because it’s cheaper to produce new plastics than to recycle them, recycling single-use plastics is simply not profitable. On top of that, more than 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels—oil, natural gas, and coal, which are dirty, non-renewable resources. Burning fossil fuels is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Use reusable containers for water, beverages, and coffee.

Our Role is Critical

As backwards as it may seem, the success of recycling is determined first by market value and demand and local regulations—and then by what’s good for the environment. So, consumers have no choice but to play along if we want to see our products recycled. That means being clear about the products we use, how we use them, and in what shape we throw them away, because this makes or breaks their value for their potential next use. Recycled plastic products have to compete with new products. Consumers, of course, want to purchase the highest quality products.

Sustainability poster at Prescott University, Sustainable Food Systems program.


The three R’s—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—are listed in order of importance. Recycling is something we should absolutely do, but it should be a last resort, having first reduced the purchase of products made from plastics, especially single-use plastics, and then reusing those products as much as possible. The best scenario, with a water bottle, for example, would be to use one we already own or to purchase one made of a high-quality reusable (and recyclable) material, like metal, that can be used for years. If that doesn’t suit a particular situation, choose a container made of cardboard, glass, or metal, all of which can be recycled, before going with plastic. When it is plastic, be sure it’s higher quality, recyclable plastic (these still hold some market value) and not the very thin-walled single-use options. Recycling plants refuse them.

Try reusable, portable flatware sets to cut down on plastic utensil use.

When you purchase plastic products of any type, do not be misled by the recycling symbol of arrows with a number one through seven in the center. This does not mean the item is recyclable. It refers to the type of plastic it is made from. Only numbers 1, 2, and 5 are truly recyclable. Numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7 end up in the landfill or are burned. Communities vary in the types of materials, including plastics, that they recycle. Go to your city’s waste provider’s website to find out exactly what is recyclable in your community and in what condition it must be in to be recycled. For example, a food container—think takeout plastic container, coffee cup, or even milk jug—with or without food or grease or liquid may be rejected.

Use glass containers to store pantry items and leftovers.

7 Ways to Reduce Plastic Use

1. Use reusable shopping and produce bags.

2. Choose boxes over bottles.

Bulk bins have great selection and no packaging—fill your own bag or container.

3. Purchase food from bulk bins; fill a reusable container.

4. Take a reusable mug or cup to to-go shops.

5. Bring a container from home for restaurant leftovers.

Tote lunch in reliable, long lasting containers and fabric bags—no waste!

6. Pack lunches in reusable containers and bags.

Collect bottles and containers to store smoothies, brewed teas, and self-squeezed juices.

7. Squeeze your own juice and freeze your own produce to avoid disposable packaging

Written by Lori Zanteson, Contributing Editor for

Photos by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

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