First published December 2010, last updated September 2012
A GLT reader asked what is better for the environment – using plastic wrap or reusable plastic containers. Like so many questions related to green living, the answer depends on a number of things.
About plastic wrap
Plastic wrap used to be made from PVC, but concerns were raised about the risk in transfer of toxic plasticizers from PVC into food. PVC plastic wrap is still used in some catering applications, but the wrap you buy from the supermarket is likely to be LDPE (Low-density Polyethylene). As this may vary from country to country, it’s worthwhile checking.
While the use of LDPE doesn’t have the same health and environmental concerns of PVC; the big problem is LDPE is a no.4 plastic; meaning you likely can’t put it your kerbside recycling bin (check with your authorities).
The amount of wrap used to protect a sandwich might seem tiny when you scrunch it up into a ball and throw it away; but think about how much plastic wrap you go through each year. I recently bought another roll of the stuff and took note of the weight – it was substantial. Now think of millions of households that do the same – it translates to a significant amount.
So is the answer a reusable plastic container?
Reusable plastic containers
A reusable plastic container can be a greener way to go, depending on two things – the quality and the type of plastic used.
Quality is an important issue because if you consider the weight of a container compared to plastic wrap and if that container only lasts a short while before the lid warps or the container cracks; that plastic container is the equivalent to a lot of plastic wrapping.
Adding to the potential to be a very un-green option is the type of plastic used. When shopping for plastic containers, look for a triangle with a number inside – this signifies the plastic resin code.
The two resin codes to look for are either 1 – PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate) or 2, which is HDPE; High density Polyethylene.
Of those two, the better (and likely more available) choice is probably HDPE as PETE is intended for single use, although many people do reuse PETE bottles – me included. And no, reused PETE bottles do not leach dioxins when reused – that is an urban myth. The biggest concern is bacteria buildup.
HDPE is a good choice as it won’t leach chemicals into your food, is hygienic and it’s easily recyclable.
BPA and reusable containers
BPA (bisphenol-A) is a major concern for many people as it mimics hormones and could affect normal development and reproduction. The concern has been enough to see it banned in some countries . BPA shouldn’t be an issue with HDPE plastics as BPA is used with another type of plastic called polycarbonate.
Phthalates, reusable containers and PETE
Phthalates are added to some plastics to increase their flexibility and durability. There are also health and environment concerns with these chemicals. While they are unlikely to be in HDPE plastics, it doesn’t hurt to check.
In regard to PETE, it’s my understanding that although the word “phthalate” appears in the name, it doesn’t contain phthalate plasticizers – they are chemically different substances.
Plastic wrap mats and pouches
Pouches, wraps and variations on these themes have become quite popular. Basically they are a reusable plastic sheet or pouch you secure with a velcro tab. It’s a great idea in that they are reusable; but most I’ve seen are made from LDPE – the same as plastic wrap. However, they should have a decent lifespan if properly cared for. If you opt for one of these products, do check what type of plastic it is.
You could always opt for a non-crude oil based alternative altogether, such as:
Bioplastic plastic wrap
I noticed since originally publishing this article that bioplastic food wrap, based on plant based materials, is now a reality. These plastics fully biodegrade in about 18 months. I’m not sure how widely available it is and I haven’t seen any bioplastic wraps in my local supermarket as yet.
PLA based containers:
These are bioplastics made from renewable resources such as corn or bagasse (sugar cane waste). They are compostable, but not recyclable.
Recycled paper lunch sacks are readily available online these days. Just a word of warning, not all recycled paper products are created equal. Be sure to check out the recycled content percentage as some products may have as little as 5% and others as much as 100%.
One of the issues of just using a paper bag is the transfer of smells and tastes, plus a sandwich can dry out rather quickly. Greaseproof paper can help address this and biodegradable greaseproof paper is also now available.
Something to bear in mind with using paper, it still takes a substantial amount of energy to recycle it and there can be environmentally harsh chemicals involved. Whether recycling the amount of paper you would use would require more energy in comparison to the lifetime/recycling of a reusable plastic container, I really don’t know.
Bento boxes are compartmentalized and may have several layers. Each compartment is meant for a different type of food. While often made of plastic, metal and bamboo bento boxes are available.
You could also use a combination – for example, a stainless steel lunch box that should last forever in conjunction with recycled paper bags and biodegradable greaseproof paper – but don’t forget to recycle the recycled paper and compost the greaseproof paper.
If you simply can’t give up your plastic wrap for whatever reason – just use less of it as that would be a good green start. Perhaps you could also reuse other plastic bags you have laying around for the task of wrapping food – assuming they are in suitable condition of course :).