Snack foods and single-use plastics unfortunately go hand in hand. What's your favourite snack food? Does it come in a plastic wrapper? The answer is most likely yes!
Plastic food packaging has been around since the 1960s. It's more resistant than paper, lighter than glass – and cheap! But it's everywhere... it's choking up landfill, clogging our waterways, and washing up on our beaches. It has a devastating environmental impact on the soil, water supply, air quality, and on sea and wildlife.
And its use is so widespread that it's very hard to find a viable and sustainable plastic free alternative!
We came face to face with this real challenge when we were looking to find the perfect plastic free packaging for PULSÍTOS. We were on a quest to have a plastic free snack with a wrapper that's easy to dispose of and wouldn't end up harming the environment. After all, we're committed to being completely plastic free, and reducing our environmental impact as much as possible.
But is plastic free snacking a distant pipe dream? No, it's not! There are alternatives to plastic, with many new ones being developed every day.
This is our handy informational guide to plastic free snacking.
What is plastic exactly?
Plastic is a synthetic material made up of polymers and produced via a chemical process. It's a byproduct of the petrochemical industry which is part of the reason why it's so cheap. There's a dizzying variety of different types of plastic known under different codes, like PVC (polyvinyl chloride), PE (polyethylene), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), to name only a few.
Fact: 50 kg of plastic per person is produced each year. This doubles every 10 years!
Why is plastic packaging used for snack foods?
Plastic packaging is incredibly versatile: it's lightweight, durable, water resistant, can be moulded into different shapes, and comes in a variety of shiny colours. This is why it's so convenient as a wrapper for snack foods, especially what's called 'ambient products'. These are prepared foods that are pre-packed and expected to have a long shelf-life. The plastic wrapping keeps the product fresh by protecting it from humidity, light and bacteria.
What's wrong with plastic?
Though plastic packaging is convenient and versatile, our overdependence on it has created an ecological disaster.
Packaging falls under the category of single-use plastics which are the worst offenders. It takes you only a few minutes to get through a packet of crisps, but it takes 1000 years for the plastic packet to decompose in landfill and 500 years in water.
As it slowly breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics, it releases toxins into the soil and the ocean, harming ecosystems, marine life, sea birds, and other animals.
What are the alternatives to plastic?
For plastic free snack foods, the first alternative that comes to mind is paper. The challenge is that paper is not as resistant as plastic. Also, the packaging would need to have a foil lining to keep the contents fresh. But in order to be recycled, the foil has to be separated from the paper. This is a complex and costly option for recycling plants in the UK with limited resources. Unfortunately such packaging often ends up in landfill instead.
We cover a few other plastic free alternatives in the next section...
What does plastic free mean?
According to A Plastic Planet (who has accredited our plastic free packaging!), materials that fall under the following two categories can be considered to be plastic free:
Biomaterials are made of organic materials such as wood pulp, plant cellulose, food waste, grass, algae, and mushrooms. These are sustainable and compostable.
Falling under the other materials category are plastic free materials which include metal, paper, cartonboard and glass. All of these can be recycled but not composted (except for cartonboard). As for cans made of steel and tin, these are often lined with plastic which means there's an extra step required to remove this layer.
What is home compostable packaging?
Plastic-free compostable packaging made of natural organic materials will decompose, leaving no toxic residues and becoming soil-like compost. That sounds ideal! However, such packaging will not necessarily decompose in just any compost heap. It requires an industrial composting facility where the temperatures are kept high to accelerate the decomposition process, and nutrients, oxygen and moisture levels can be controlled.
But if plastic free snack packaging is labelled home compostable, it can simply be thrown into a home compost bin along with other organic kitchen waste. All parts of the packaging decomposes without any toxic residues, including the printing ink and any glues.
Home compostable packaging is what we should aim for because there's a higher probability that the wrapper will end up in a garden heap or council compost bin. Even if the wrapper does end up in landfill, it will degrade anyway.
Of course, just because plastic-free packaging happens to be compostable, this doesn't mean it shouldn't end up in the right bin! We still have to do our part and dispose of it in a responsible way.