Happy Earth Day! Each year’s celebration of this important day reminds us of all the ways we can help the environment every day in our own homes. In particular, recycling (and otherwise re-using packaging) can be hugely beneficial to our planet. Some of the most common recyclable packaging is food and beverage packaging. This kind of packaging typically is durable, strong, protective, and plays a role in the safety, convenience, and efficiency of our food supply. It acts to block light and protect nutrients in our food and beverage products—keeping quality consistent throughout a product’s shelf life. Because these packages help provide food protection and safety, both consumers and consumer-goods companies are adopting practices to promote packaging that is even more efficient—as well as boost recycling and reuse rates.
Ninety-four percent of U.S. residents living in communities with a population of more than 125,000 have recycling programs available to them, but our individual knowledge of what can and cannot be recycled, and how we can be more mindful about recycling practices, can go a long way in improving national recycling rates. For example, in addition to participating in recycling programs, the careful reuse of certain types of packaging in the home is one major way to minimize packaging waste. For food safety reasons, not all food and beverage containers are designed to be reused, but many are—see below for tips.
In addition to our personal efforts, various companies are repurposing packaging waste to make products such as clothing, shoes, and other consumer goods. For example, many conservation-minded companies and organizations are recovering incorrectly discarded ocean plastics to make new products such as furniture, sunglasses, luggage and car parts—all while working to discourage marine littering.
Revving up to recycle
Every home across the country likely has recyclable packages lurking about—often including food, beverage, detergent, and cosmetics containers. But a major contributor to recycling rates is our local recycling infrastructure (that is, the accessibility of nearby recycling centers, but also the curbside pickup programs frequently available to us in our own neighborhoods). If you don’t have a curbside recycling program in your neighborhood, you may have a nearby recycling center you can visit. This website can you locate nearby recycling centers and the items they accept if you don’t have your own curbside recycling program.
As you gather your recyclables, be mindful of not contaminating the recycling stream by throwing in items that can’t go into the recycling bin. Educate yourself on what your local recycling programs will and will not accept (for instance, some curbside systems will take plastic, paper and cardboard, and aluminum—but not glass). For items that cannot go in the bin (like clothes, electronics, paint cans, and plastic bags), there are often other local opportunities to recycle them, but doing so will likely require arranging a trip to a specialized center or a more specific pick-up service.
If your recyclable packaging is contaminated with discarded food waste, it needs to be rinsed and cleaned before you recycle it. Try not to be a “wishful” recycler—if in doubt, throw it out! You can also consult this guide if you’re confused about what typically can be recycled.
Reusing is on the rise
Try to choose reusable containers, bottles, and bags to store your food and beverages. One particularly popular reusable package is the reusable water bottle, made from materials like glass, plastic, stainless steel, and silicon. A recent market analysis report noted that “the global [r]eusable [w]ater [b]ottles market size is projected to reach USD 458.2 [m]illion by 2027, from USD 312.2 [m]illion in 2020, at a [c]ompound [a]nnual [g]rowth [r]ate (CAGR) of 6.6% during the forecast period 2021–2027.” These bottles can be useful and sustainable—as long as you keep them clean and have access to a purified water source for refilling them.
Reusable containers can also be useful for packing up food and drinks to take away from your home and for storing food and beverages (in an air-tight manner) to avoid food waste. A growing number of companies are also offering refillable containers that can be reused with the same product after you’ve run out of your initial supply. In addition, some food and beverage services and restaurants are encouraging us to bring our reusable cups and other packaging with us to hold our drink and food orders.
Although you can safely reuse many kinds of packaging, be mindful that not all packages are meant to be reused to store food and beverages. From a food-safety perspective, it is best to use a package as the label instructs you to do so for long-term use, paying particular attention to how the item should be washed, heated (or not heated), and stored. This handy food packaging fact sheet provides insight on many best practices in reusing food packaging.
While most of us can’t entirely eliminate the presence of packaging in our everyday lives, we can work to minimize the potential negative impacts of single-use packaging on the environment by recycling and reusing our own packages as often as possible. Along with supporting the reuse efforts of food and beverage industry leaders, environmental organizations, and U.S. consumers, let’s celebrate Earth Day this year by making a commitment to recycle packaging in our own home whenever we can.