Plastic Wrap Alternatives for Sustainable Food Storage
Keeping leftovers fresh is one way to tackle food waste. While plastic wrap and other single-use products can help do that, are there more sustainable plastic wrap alternatives?
Making sure those leftovers you’ve saved for a future lunch stay fresh is important, both to prevent you from getting ill and to preserve the quality of your meal. But the tools you use might do their job once and then get thrown away, ending up in landfill or worse. Surely there is a better way?
The Problem with cling film and aluminium foil
Plastic wrap (also known as cling film or Saran wrap) is a well-known choice for covering leftovers - but this convenient solution comes at a price. Plastic wrap is hard to recycle because it can clog machinery so most recycling schemes won’t accept it.5 Aluminium foil is a better option as it can be recycled, but an even better solution is a covering that can be reused again and again.
Cling film wrap alternatives: beeswax wraps, silicone, stainless steel
Luckily, these days there is no shortage of products claiming to keep food fresh in a more environmentally-friendly way. But with so many to choose from, which is the greenest cling film alternative?
Beeswax wraps are cotton cloths that are usually coated with a mix of beeswax, oil and tree resin. Beeswax wraps will stick together around your food thanks to the wax, which softens and acts as a sealant when pressed together with warm hands and then left to cool.
Cotton does have a significant environmental footprint of its own.6 It needs a lot of water to grow and tends to be farmed using lots of pesticides that are harmful to farm workers, detrimental to soil and water quality and lead to loss of biodiversity in the local area. Fortunately, though, many brands of beeswax wraps use organic cotton, which is better for farmers and the environment.7
Beeswax wraps are, of course, reusable, but they will lose their stickiness over time. Also, while they can be hand-washed, they can’t be thoroughly cleaned without affecting their ability to stick together and so shouldn’t be used to wrap raw meat or fish due to the risk of cross-contamination.
Did you know: you can also get simply “wax wraps” that don’t use beeswax? These vegan-friendly alternatives often use plant-based waxes instead, but work just as well as beeswax wraps!
Silicone lids are a reusable plastic wrap substitute for covering bowls or other containers. They come in stretchy and non-stretchy varieties, and you can also find sandwich-shaped silicone pouches that are perfect for protecting your lunch on the go.
Silicone can form an airtight seal, which is useful for keeping your food fresh, and it can go seamlessly from freezer to microwave or oven. But silicone is a polymer and, like plastic, while it is recyclable it can’t be recycled infinitely (unlike metal and glass).8
Stainless steel containers for storing food come in all shapes and sizes. They are heat resistant and can be recycled without losing quality, giving them an advantage over silicone.9 Recycled stainless steel actually requires less energy to produce than brand new stainless steel, and so is an even better option.10 Some stainless steel containers come with a silicone seal built-in too, making them airtight and leak-proof.
While using something once and then throwing it out is far from ideal, sometimes it might be unavoidable. In those cases, try turning to paper instead of plastic. Paper bags are usually easy to recycle, as long as they are not lined with plastic or contaminated with grease from food, and some are even home compostable too. You can also find paper bags made from trees grown under a certified scheme like that run by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which ensures your lunch packaging comes from sustainably managed forests.11
Bonus storage tips: reduce, reuse, recycle
While it can be tempting to load up on exciting new products that promise to help you live more sustainably, a good first step is to consider whether you truly need to buy something new in the first place.12
No-buy options involve putting your leftovers in a bowl covered with a plate, or leaving your leftover soup in the pan you made it in, topped with a lid. Not only will this mean you avoid the need for both single-use plastics and new products, but you’ll have fewer dishes to wash too.
If your crockery collection is lacking, check your cupboards for old plastic tubs you’ve forgotten about. Or if you regularly buy food that comes in a jar, such as peanut butter, consider washing the jar thoroughly after you’re done and using it to store food. Remember, glass jars can even go in the freezer!
Just how bad is Food waste for the planet?
A staggering 6% of our greenhouse gas emissions worldwide come from food that is produced but never eaten.1 Our individual contributions to this burden of food waste are significant; on average, just less than one-third of those emissions come from food wasted by consumers1 (with the remaining two-thirds attributed to food losses in the supply chain). In high-income countries, we tend to waste more food than our low-income counterparts, with half of all food wasted in Europe down to the actions of consumers.2
The environmental impacts of wasted food don’t just extend to carbon: land and water are in finite supply and are used to grow the crops we eat,3 and intensive agricultural practices have negative impacts on the habitat of the animals and plants we share the land with.4
Of course, solving these challenges requires systematic change, not just individual action - but if you want to reduce your personal impact on the planet, combating food waste is a good place to start - and it pays to think about the best way to do it.
How do you store your leftovers at home and can you recommend any other plastic wrap alternatives? Let us know in the comments below!