While there are many ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle, the food you purchase and eat is a great place to start. When it comes to shopping for food, there are many different aspects to take into account when considering how sustainable a product may be. The four factors that have the greatest impact on the footprint of your food are packaging, locality, seasonality, and food type.

Packaging (or a lack thereof) can make an unassuming item have a greater impact than it should. When considering whether to purchase something that comes in packaging consider a few things:

Can I get this item package free?

Many items, especially produce, can be purchased with little to no packaging involved. This can be achieved through reusable produce bags, which can be found in many in-person and online retailers. Some grocery stores offer a bulk section that allows you to bring in your own containers to fill with items from the bulk section, and you only pay for what you buy in weight. When you go to bring in a reusable bag or container, ensure that you have thoroughly cleaned it, and (if applicable) have clearly written down the weight of the container.

Is this product packaged in a highly recyclable material like glass or aluminum?

Highly recyclable containers, like glass and aluminum, are the most optimal option for a product that comes in packaging. This is due to the fact that both products retain high values in the recycling market. Another beneficial factor of aluminum and glass packaging is that it is often able to be upcycled to have another purpose for the consumer. For example, you can reuse tin cans to create DIY lanterns, or reuse tomato sauce jars to store liquid items like soups or juice. It is important to keep in mind that when you choose to recycle a perfectly reusable glass jar or tin can, that energy must be used in the process of properly recycling that product.

Is this product packaged in compostable material?

Compostable material, like paper, is another more-sustainable option when buying an item that comes in packaging. The packaging can simply be composted in a compost bin, or if it is a paper product, recycled. When looking at packaging that is advertised to be compostable, it is important to recognize that many items with that label can only decompose in industrial composts. So, when choosing a product with bio-based packaging, try to go with paper. Paper is highly recyclable and compostable.

Is this product packaged in recyclable plastic (numbers 1-5)?

Recyclable plastic packaging should be treated as the last resort item for buying something in packaging. There are many limitations on plastic recycling that make it much more of a hassle than that of another packaging. Only plastics 1-5 can be recycled in the USA. Items with mixed types of plastics, for example, a bottle and a bottle cap, must be separated. The most important thing to keep in mind about plastic is its significantly low value in the recyclables market. Furthermore, even when plastic is recycled, it can only be recycled so many times before it becomes too degraded to be reused further and goes into the landfill.


While there is certainly stratification on the sustainability of each of these types of packaging, one thing is clear. All of these kinds of food item packaging are far more sustainable than non-recyclable materials. It is extremely important to note that ALL packaging must be clean of food or liquid before it is recycled. When dirty recycling mixes with clean recycling, it is all thrown into the landfill.