We’re celebrating Earth Day every day with a comprehensive (and super fun!) Sustainability Series. Check back every Friday for a new article about how to live life in a more eco-friendly, mindful way. 

If you’re existing in this world, there’s no doubt you have purchased, used and even consumed (!!!) plastic. And even when we do our best to recycle, clever marketing has led us to believe that all biodegradable materials are created equal. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, especially when it comes to single-use plastics like styrofoam and straws. 

But not all hope is lost! With an increase of home gardens and composting, plus scientific advancements in the world of natural materials, the future of sustainable food packaging is bright.

Difference Between Biodegradable, Compostable and Recyclable

When discussing eco-friendly solutions, the following terms are often thrown around (and sometimes used interchangeably). Let’s get into the goods, bads and specificities of each.

Biodegradable Materials

While there is no universal definition for the term biodegradable, in science it means anything naturally broken down by bacteria and fungi at certain temperatures and humidities (i.e., in outdoor settings). Lots of materials are technically biodegradable, but some take much longer to decompose which may cause harm to the environment. 

New eco-friendly products like paper bottles, corn-based plastic, and brown fiber takeout bowls claim to be biodegradable but are either: 1. Combined with non-compostable materials, 2. Need extremely high heat and controlled moisture to break down, or 3. More often than not end up in the trash due to the nature of their use.

Compostable Materials

Compostable materials are similar to biodegradable materials with one key difference: a person has to initiate the process. There are many methods of composting (including aerobic, anaerobic and vermicomposting), but the general idea is that somebody is creating an environment in which things decompose more quickly, and turn into nutrient-rich soil. 

People often use compost to fertilize their garen, or to reduce the amount of trash they produce. Compostable materials include: fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, grass clippings and cardboard. 

Recyclable Materials

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines recycling as: “The process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.” It reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills, conserves natural resources and saves energy. In the household, the most common products containing recycled materials are newspapers, laundry detergent bottles, and drink containers like aluminum, plastic and soda. 

From a waste perspective, the most commonly recycled materials are paper, plastic and glass—  but there are some caveats. Most paper can only be recycled 5-7 times, and common plastics 1-2 times, before the quality decreases and it becomes unusable. Fortunately, glass, aluminum and other metals can be recycled forever. 

Most Eco-Friendly Food Packaging Options

Unsurprisingly, glass is one of the most sustainable choices when it comes to food packaging, along with hemp, bamboo and stainless steel. There have also been some pretty neat advancements in the world of sustainable packaging materials as of late, including: 

Least Eco-Friendly Food Packaging Options

While progress has been made when it comes to sustainable food packaging, there are still plenty of materials out there you should try to steer clear of. Anything petroleum-based, which is typically found in single-use plastic, is not biodegradable and should be avoided. Because the plastic can’t decompose, it releases microscopic fragments into the environment (known as microplastics) which end up in our air, food and water.

Here are some common petroleum-based plastics to avoid:

  • Plastic takeout containers
  • Styrofoam cups and containers
  • Straws
  • Drink bottles and caps
  • Plastic bags
  • Frozen food packages

10 Tips for Cutting Down Plastic Packaging Use

Although buying plastic is unavoidable, especially when it comes to food packaging, there are ways you can cut back on your use. Here are 10 eco-friendly ideas for your next shopping trip.

1. Reuse packing materials like bubble wrap or cardboard boxes when they come in the mail.

2. Keep reusable grocery bags in your car for trips to the grocery store.

3. Drink from a reusable water bottle instead of plastic ones.

4. Rinse and reuse gently used Ziploc bags instead of tossing them.

5. Decline plastic utensils when ordering takeout.

6. Invest in glass food containers rather than traditional plastic.

7. Ditch the prepackaged veggies at the grocery store in exchange for fresh produce.

8. Swap your plastic wrap for aluminum foil.

9. Drink from stainless steel straws, and keep some with you when you’re on-the-go.

10. Use glass jars to buy bulk items like rice and other grains.

Become a Certified Coach at HCI

If you’d like to learn more about health, wellness and living more sustainably, consider joining the Health Coach Institute. Whether you’re looking to shift careers or just want to expand your education, there’s a variety of courses designed to meet your needs. Check out our Become a Health Coach program and finish in just six months. If you’re already a coach and want to advance your skills, check out HCI’s Coach Mastery program. Feel free to get in touch with one of our clarity coaches directly by calling 1-800-303-2399.


Health Coach Institute provides aspiring Health and Life Coaches with the tools, training, and support to make a great living transforming lives.