What Food Packaging Can Be Recycled?
Not all packaging is created equal, and what with the current state of our dear planet this is not something to be taken lightly or brushed off as a hipster ideal. It’s actually awesome that an eco-friendly lifestyle is trending, and if recycling was to catch on fire at the same rate that the Amazon did, we would actually have a hope to save our beloved Mother Nature. In case you didn’t get the memo, plastic islands, pollution and deforestation can all be dramatically reduced by simply following the golden rule: Reduce, Reuse and of course, Recycle.
Food packaging comes in an infinite number of shapes and forms, leading to great confusion amongst novice recyclers and the general public alike. Even though the bins are labeled, facts surrounding the different subtypes of materials (for example the different kinds of plastics and paper) seem to be shrouded in a dirty cloud of mystery. The truth is there are a lot of scientific factors to consider when it comes to recycling food packaging, and this article will shed light on everything you need to know so you don’t fall prey to any urban myths.
The Green Trend
Unlike bygone trends that had no scientific basis, let alone ethical interests at heart, the trend towards eco-friendly living has a worthy and pressing cause at its very core. Unfortunately the pace, price and structure of current modern society does not exactly set recycling as the easiest default option. In the case of the street food industry consumers are specifically looking for an instant (and sometimes urgent) transaction, which prioritises speed and satiety over and above the most well-intentioned goals.
While consumers may actively seek out a product that will not have a negative impact on the environment, the plight of the planet boils down in part to a lack of eco-friendly options available. Over the past few years we have seen minor changes in the movement against single-use plastic, with 2018 bringing global action in the form of a plastic straw boycott. Due to the widespread attention of the campaign, many people would not be caught dead using a plastic straw today.
However straws are only the tip of the proverbial plastic iceberg, with a host of foreign objects buried deep beneath the ocean’s surface. While it is great that it’s trending to refuse a straw made from plastic, the straw is less than one percent of our problems. If the mysterious global denial doesn’t end soon at least future generations can have a laugh at the end, that it was not the straw that broke the camel’s back.
While governments remain incredibly lenient on the production, consumption and recycling of waste products, the future of humanity hangs in the balance. The straw was just the starting point of a growing awareness leaning towards consumers making choices based on the packaging of a product. It’s up to us to educate ourselves and take action in every way we can. What better place to start than with food packaging, the number one single-use suspect of the throwaway culture.
Factors Influencing Recycling
When recycling was still in its infancy in the 1970s, it was common knowledge that only paper, tin and glass could be tossed into the colourful domes. However in 2019 there is an infinite array of food packaging on the market, including non-recyclable paper as well as different varieties of plastic and polystyrene. This makes the matter at hand a little more complicated and in addition to the new materials used for packaging today, as technology has progressed so has the recycling process. This means that there are now recycling options available for many more materials (including certain plastics and polystyrenes).
What you can and can’t recycle depends largely on your local recycling depot, with some offering more modern recycling options and others not. Yet even if your recycling plant has the traditional three bins, there are so many different types of paper, tin and even glass that it can begin to feel like you need a PhD in recycling just to figure out which materials go into which bins. This article is about to change all that by uncovering all of the nitty-gritty facts, and sorting them into piles in your mind so you know exactly what belongs where.
What food packaging can be recycled?
Food packaging itself is unavoidable with factors such as hygiene, damage-protection and ease of transportation coming into play. While there are biodegradable food packaging options available, these are currently in the minority at typical grocery stores or take-out stands, leaving the consumer responsible for choosing between recyclable and non-recyclable materials. If you have ever wondered why the customer at your local store is staring for over five minutes at a particular item, it is possible that he or she is weighing up the fate of the planet versus a particularly intense sugar craving. Precycling (preventative recycling) is only possible when we have the facts straight, so without further ado here they are:
Different Types of Plastic and Polystyrene
The different variations of plastic take between 450 years and never to entirely biodegrade. For this reason single-use plastics, are at the top of the list when it comes to the legislature that will inevitably criminalise the production and distribution of materials harmful to our environment. Not all plastic is recyclable, but it’s well worth recycling the many types that are. There are ways to check which type of plastic you are dealing with, in the form of number codes that appear inside the plastic resin symbol (three arrows forming a triangle).
Polystyrene has been grouped in with the plastic numbering system too and is indeed recyclable. Not all recycling depots take each of these types of materials, so check with your local depot to find out exactly what your options are. If you have any questions about products not listed below (and without numbers) you can take these queries to your local recycling manager as well. Here is a breakdown of the different types of plastic and polystyrene found in food and beverage packaging that can be recycled:
1. PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) can be recycled into polyester filling for fleeces and cushions
• Plastic soda bottles (eg. Coca cola)
• Yogurt containers (check to see it doesn’t have elements of polystyrene in it)
• Peanut butter containers
• Salad dressing bottles
• Vegetable oil bottles
2. HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) can be recycled into detergent bottles and pens.
• Margarine tubs
• Ice-cream tubs
• Plastic bottle caps
• Milk cartons
• Juice bottles
3. PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is rarely recycled due to its chemical properties.
• Cooking oil bottles
4. LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) can be recycled into bin-liner bags.
• Bread bags
• Bags from breakfast cereals (but if it tears like paper then no)
• Wrappers from six packs of cans or bottles
• Zip-lock bags
• Squeezable bottles
• Frozen food bags
5. PP (Polypropylene) can be recycled into brooms, brush bristles and trays.
• Street food tubs
• Sauce bottles
• Plastic cutlery
6. Polystyrene can be recycled into egg cartons and insulation materials
• Plastic forks
• Yoghurt containers (check the plastic first)
• Foam-like fast food boxes
• Meat trays
7. Miscellaneous: Usually not recycled but can be made into plastic lumber
• Giant water bottles
Different Types of Tin
Aluminum and metal-type materials are extremely important to recycle, because it takes almost 20 times more energy to make a new can from scratch than to make one from recycled metals. Aluminum can be recycled again and again without affecting the quality of the by-product. Most commonly they are re-made into new tins, but they can also be used to create tractor and car bodies and a variety of other objects.
Just so you know, it is possible to recycle the inner ring from tin cans as well as the ring pull. If you have a variety of small tin objects to recycle, simply place them inside a can so that they don’t slip through the sorting process and hinder the recycling process. Remember to carefully separate the plastic lids into their correct category, as mixing materials will ruin not only your trash but all the trash that was in the batch of recycling with it. Here is the list of common tin food packaging that can be recycled:
• Aerosol cans such as Spray and Cook
• Tinned food such as tuna or beans
• Aluminium foil/aluminium trays
• Aluminium tubes such as tomato puree
• Biscuit/Chocolate tins
• Bottle caps
• Wine lids
Different Types of Paper and Cardboard
Paper and cardboard are easily biodegradable, and won’t do much harm to the environment if left in the corner of your garden to decompose. The reason that these materials are recycled at all, boils down to conserving natural resources including the trees and energy used in the creation of brand new paper. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions and also keeps space in the landfills open for materials that are not recyclable.
It seems obvious, but both cardboard and paper can be recycled in your local paper recycling bin. The bigger question then, is what about wood? Paper is made from wood so it seems logical that when it all gets ground up, this shouldn’t be a problem. If you have ever wondered where to put your skewers or chopsticks, you can put them on your compost heap instead of in the paper bin.
The most important thing to remember is that your paper food packaging needs to be clean without any grease stains. There are also a few pseudo-cardboards out there, masquerading as recyclable. Plastic and wax-lined cardboard cannot be recycled and will contaminate the recycling process of all the other paper if you include it in the bin. Here are the items safe to recycle:
• Egg boxes
• Fruit boxes
• Cereal boxes
• Biscuit boxes
Tetrapak is an international food packaging sub-company of Tetra Laval, and their products are fully recyclable at selected depots. The cartons are made from a combination of 75% paperboard, 20% plastic and 5% aluminum. Each of these materials are recyclable individually, however the process of recycling a Tetrapak falls into a category of its own.
The Green Roof Project in Thailand is an outreach campaign initiated by the company, and uses recycled Tetrapaks to create emergency roofing for those in need. Launched in 2010, the project has touched the lives of over 10000 people to date. Here are the Tetrapak food items that can be recycled:
• Juice cartons
• Milk cartons
• Custard cartons
• Soup cartons
• Wine cartons
• Sauce cartons
Different Types of Glass
When recycling glass, it is important to ensure that the glass is squeaky clean so as not to contaminate any of the materials in the recycling plant. Glass food packaging is fairly straightforward to recycle. The only form of glass related to food and beverages, is the standard household drinking glass – which has different properties to the recyclable glass mentioned below:
• Wine bottles
• Beer bottles
• Jam jars
• Pickled onion jars
• Coffee jars
• Glass food containers
Healing Our Planet
With the popularity of sustainable-living on the rise, as well as the dire state of the planet, it won’t be long before people begin checking each other out at the dustbins. Just as smokers have been socially shunned by organisations and members of society, it is likely that in the next decade the same will ring true for non-recyclers. With legislature in its infant stages and green-living trends on the rise, we can only hope that society will make the drastic changes necessary to heal our planet.
When we are faced with the facts, meaningful change may seem unlikely and disheartening at times, but just remember how we pulled it out the bag with the aerosol dilemma. When millions of people realised the harmful nature of the CFCs within the cans, changes were made and we bought ourselves some extra time in our planet’s lifespan. So take heart, take action and embrace your newfound confidence as you walk into the recycling depot next time.