The A-to-Z Guide to Eco-Friendly Food Packaging

Human concerns related to plastics include their accumulation in landfills and oceans, the formation of micro and nano plastics, and exposure of humans to toxins when chemicals from packaging leach into the food. In addition to the toxic chemicals knowingly used to make plastics, there are numerous non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) in food packaging. These chemicals pose toxic and endocrine-disrupting risks to humans. 

To address these environmental and health concerns, eco-friendly food packaging alternatives are becoming more common. Eco-friendly food packaging often uses plant extracts — such as wood, wheat, and bamboo — and sustainable bioplastics. These eco-friendly alternatives contain fewer NIAS than traditional plastic packaging, making them safer for the environment and human health. Moderate levels of chemical exposure from food packaging are unavoidable, but measures to decrease these chemicals in food are critical to public health and safety.

Key Takeaways:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a strong, lightweight plastic that is transparent and does not react with food. This means that no chemicals are left on the food even if you heat the container.
  • Polylactic acid (PLA) plastic is a thermoplastic usually produced from corn sugars, sugarcane, or cassava. The FDA recognizes it as food-safe packaging. 
  • Sugarcane/sugar cane is a plant-based, treeless, renewable material derived from sugarcane waste and plant material left over from sugar extraction.
  • Color-coated paper containers are made from environmentally friendly and recyclable kraft paper. The poly-coating makes it even more durable, ideal for either cold or hot conditions.
  • Reusable polypropylene food containers are a great way to cut down on disposable costs and reduce waste in places where meals are frequently eaten at the same establishment.

5 Types of Eco-Friendly Food Packaging     

When a facility or food service establishment switches from single-use plastics and Styrofoam containers to more sustainable packaging, they reduce their facility’s ecological impact and attract more environmentally conscious customers. To meet the needs of any successful establishment, here are the top five eco-friendly food packaging to choose from depending on your facility type: 

1. PET Plastic Containers

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a durable, lightweight plastic that is transparent and does not react with food — meaning that it doesn’t leave any chemicals in the food even if you heat the container. It is a favored and cost-effective food and beverage packaging option for most food producers. Additionally, PET plastics are energy-efficient since they can be recycled many times to create new products. Many food containers are made from recycled PET plastic. 


  • Shatterproof
  • 100% BPA-free
  • 100% recyclable
  • Freezer safe


  • Produced from recycled petroleum-based plastic

2. PLA Plastic Containers    

Polylactic acid (PLA) plastic is a thermoplastic usually produced from corn sugars, sugarcane, or cassava. The FDA recognizes it as food-safe packaging. Manufacturers commonly use PLA to make eco-friendly food and beverage containers and cups. They also use this material as a liner for paper cups and hot food containers to prevent the paper from getting wet and soggy. 


  • Smaller carbon footprint 
  • 100% BPA-free
  • Suitable for either cold or hot conditions


  • Commercial composting required
  • Farmers may not grow materials in eco-friendly conditions
  • Chemical differences make it a #7 recyclable

Infographic of the seven recycling labels

Image Courtesy of Recycling Basics – Reuse, Reduce, Recycle

3. Sugarcane/Bagasse Containers    

Sugarcane/bagasse is a plant-based, treeless, renewable material developed from sugarcane plant waste and any remaining plant materials after sugar extraction. Manufacturers use this fibrous, soft material to create durable containers that appeal to the environmentally conscious consumer. They have also discovered a way to produce this food packaging with far less energy than its plastic counterparts. 


  • Strong enough to contain greasy foods
  • Suitable for either hot or cold conditions
  • 100% compostable and biodegradable
  • Refrigerator and microwave safe
  • Does not contain toxic dyes


  • Commercial composting required
  • Less cost-effective than other foam alternatives

4. Poly-coated Kraft Paper Containers 

These color-coated paper containers are made from environmentally friendly and recyclable kraft paper, which is sourced from renewable resources. The containers are poly-coated for added durability, allowing you to pack a wider variety of products in both cold and hot conditions. It’s necessary to note that some grease-resistant takeout boxes may contain PFA (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in their coating, which is banned in some states. Please check with your local jurisdiction to determine if these restrictions apply to your business. 


  • Grease- and leak-resistant
  • Ideal for gravies, sauces, and oils
  • Does not contain toxic dyes
  • Breathable material allows steam and moisture to vent
  • Recyclable
  • Made from recycled materials


  • Not always sourced from sustainably managed forests
  • Poly coating is difficult to recycle

5. Reusable Polypropylene Containers  

Reusable polypropylene food containers are an excellent way to reduce disposable costs and decrease waste at cafeterias, universities, retirement facilities, and other establishments with repeat customers. Establishments can also use them as part of rewards programs for loyal and conscientious consumers. For example, patrons can buy containers in advance and receive a food discount each time they swap used containers for clean ones. 


  • Dishwasher- and microwave-safe
  • 100% BPA-free
  • Break- and leak-resistant design
  • Every container has a service life of up to 1,000 uses
  • 100% recyclable


  • Higher costs (versus other eco options)
  • Not ideal for tourist-central locations

Eco-Friendly Food Packaging Ideas are Available at SIAL America

Each year SIAL America hosts a food show featuring savvy, successful, and smart foodservice professionals from all industry sectors. If you are looking for eco-friendly food packaging ideas or other sustainable food processing practices, we encourage you to attend our show in March. We will have vendors and subject matter experts to show you all the latest products, concepts, and information to help you run an environmentally responsible establishment.    

Register to attend the next SIAL show this March. Or do you want to showcase your products? Attend as an exhibitor