This Is Plastics: Plastics Cares: Plastic packaging helps food banks keep food safe and sustainable


Plastics Cares: Plastic packaging helps food banks keep food safe and sustainable

In this installment of Plastics Cares, learn how plastics supports food banks with the packaging they need to ensure all have access to safe food and basic goods.


Plastic packaging has become a necessary material for the food industry, and it remains the best option for keeping food safe at every step of its journey from farm to fork due to its durability and versatility. Not only does plastic packaging reduce food waste for consumers and companies by keeping food fresher for longer, but it also reduces contamination between products during transport, sorting, and storage. While extending shelf life and keeping food safe benefits all consumers, a longer shelf life is particularly helpful for food banks and the people who rely on them to feed their families.

Packaging matters for food banks

Many food banks or food collection centers prefer goods packaged in plastic because the material is durable, malleable, and light, making it vital to ensuring that food banks are able to safely collect, sort, re-bundle, and distribute food. Food banks generally rely on donations from companies and individuals, but unfortunately some donated products are unusable due to spoilage or damage to their packaging. These products cannot be distributed and are instead thrown away, creating more waste and more work for food bank employees and volunteers.

While canned foods are generally popular at food banks, aluminum is easily dented, which can lead to contamination and safety risks. Glass is also problematic as it is easily breakable and seals can leak or break before a product is ready to be used. Thankfully, packaging made with plastic polymers solves these challenges by being more malleable and even shock absorbent during transport and handling. Products packaged in both flexible and durable plastic packaging also experience longer sell by dates, allowing those in need to reduce trips to food banks or donation centers.

Glass and aluminum packaging materials are also heavy, which makes them harder to collect, sort, repackage, and deliver. Items packaged in plastic containers, like peanut butter, are also easier to carry for recipients who may not have personal transportation.

Plastics increases access for those in need

Food banks are in constant need of instant food mixes, shelf stable milk and dairy alternatives, cereals, snack bars, and rice and spaghetti, all of which require plastic packaging to ensure their longevity. Stable milk and dairy products, in particular, use layered plastic and paperboard packaging that do not require refrigeration and can last long periods so families can use them when they need to. In addition, fruits, like sliced peaches and mandarin oranges, that are packed in easy-to-open personal plastic cups are ideal to help food banks ensure access to balanced meals with nutritional value.

In addition to food products, food banks also collect and distribute a variety of sanitary and personal items including feminine products, tooth brushes, soap, formula for infants, and lip balm. For these products to safely reach the consumers who need them most, plastic is the reliable choice. Plastic packaging ensures that these products are safe and clean, despite traveling far distances and being packed into small or irregular spaces.

Bag bans work against food banks and reduce access

While the durability of individual product packaging is important, the bags and bins that products are bundled in are just as vital to supporting food banks’ goals. As bans and punitive economic measures have increased for single-use plastic bags across the United States, the negative unintended consequences of these types of policies are becoming apparent.

According to life cycle assessments, single-use plastic bags boast the lowest carbon footprint and use less water, less energy and fewer resources when compared to alternatives including paper and cloth. Plastic bags are even more environmentally friendly when they are reused as lunch bags, trash bags, or pet cleanup bags. Some businesses and organizations, like food banks, rely on plastic bag donations to ensure that they are able to distribute food and other goods effectively.

In the scourge of plastic bag bans, food banks have suffered and are now being forced to pay more for once-affordable single-use bags to package food for distribution. Bags made with alternative materials, like paper are not durable enough and often rip, which creates more problems for those receiving donations.

This bag shortage has become so problematic that many food banks are facing barriers to distribute food because they are unable to appropriately package it. The Harvest Hope Food Bank in South Carolina, for example, collects single-use plastic bag donations, which helps ensure that no resident goes hungry. Donated single-use bags, new or used, are also likely to be used a second, if not a third or fourth time, which adds to their longevity and sustainability. Food pantries have long relied on plastic bags as a durable mechanism for clients to carry food and basic goods home to their families, and we must ensure that access to this vital product does not become more difficult.

Plastic packaging, for both individual products and bundling products together, is the best choice to support food banks in getting much needed foods and basic products to those in need. Without plastics, products are harder to collect, sort, and distribute and are more likely to be thrown away due to contamination or damaged containers. Nonsensical policies, like bag bans and the recently proposed federal tax on virgin resin that target single-use plastic packaging, threaten the great work of food banks and are not helpful to reaching goals to make sure all have food on the table, especially during the holidays.

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