Packaging is used to contain, preserve, and protect the food product against contamination. It also provides necessary information to trace the food products and remove them rapidly from the food distribution chain when contaminated. The packaging may make the product easier to handle, be tamper resistant, and improve the shelf-life of the product.

Glass is usually chemically inert, odorless, and rigid, and is used for certain types of food and as a container for food processing. It can be made in different colors and therefore protects the contained foods from light. It can be recycled and therefore not contribute to the solid waste stream. However, some glass may contain lead which may leach into the food. Substances used to seal the bottles and jars may also leach into the food.

Metal including aluminum and tinplate is very versatile and provides excellent physical protection from contaminants as well as the ability to have the food processed within the containers. The metal containers may be recycled and therefore reduce substantially the solid waste stream.

Plastics are typically chemically resistant, inexpensive and lightweight, and easy to use. However, the use of recycled plastics in food packaging may be problematic. Plastic bottles can absorb the substances that they contain and therefore may later contaminate food. Paraffin from packaging materials may be found in the enclosed food. In Europe, studies have shown that migration of chemicals from food packaging is unacceptably high. In Asia, phthalates, a PVC plasticizer which is banned in several countries, migrate into food from plastic food jars.

Paper and paperboard frequently used for containing foods have poor barrier properties and are not heat sealable. Paper food packaging may contain printing ink from recycled paper products and become a source of phthalates. The coated paper lining in the inside of cereal boxes may become a source of contamination as it leaches into the food.

Packaging materials frequently become serious environmental problems because of disposal quantities and the nature of the materials, especially plastics, which may not be biodegradable or very slowly biodegradable. While appropriate food packaging can reduce bacterial contamination and extend the shelf-life of the product, their production utilizes raw materials and considerable energy, and may cause land pollution, water pollution, problems with sea life, and air pollution. (See endnote 34.)

Best Practices in Packaging of Food

  • • Implement appropriate source reduction practices such as using lighter weight and reusable materials in the manufacturing of various packaging containers for food in order to reduce later the amount of the solid waste stream.
  • • Develop legislation that encourages or makes mandatory certain types of recycling of food and beverage containers.
  • • Develop an effective system to prevent the use of contaminated, damaged, or defective containers for food.
  • • Determine that all incoming materials used in packaging are from an approved source and are not contaminated.
  • • Utilize food containers only for their intended purpose and not other types of storage.
  • • Evaluate labeling on food containers to make sure that it is accurate and informative. (See endnote 35.)
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