Plant-Based Meat Has a Packaging Problem

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Written by Michele C. Hollow


Michele C. Hollow

Climate Journalist

Michele C. Hollow is a journalist that specializes in climate and health. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.


In the past year, our consumption of plant-based foods grew by double digits over the prior year. That’s according to a study from the Plant Based Foods Association, which also found 63 percent of consumers buying plant-based meats keep coming back as repeat customers. 

Eating a plant-based diet is good for our health and for the health of the planet. “Shifting away from animal-based foods add up to 49 percent of the global food supply without expanding croplands,” Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., MPH, RD, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Community Health Sciences at UCLA, says, “and would also significantly reduce carbon emissions and waste byproducts that end up in our oceans.”

Plant-based burger packaging isn’t sustainable

Eating a plant-based diet is a giant step towards lowering our carbon footprint. However, many of the plant-based burgers we buy come in plastic packages that resemble beef, chicken, pork, and fish containers.

The popular plant-based Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers sold at Costco, and in most supermarkets, are packaged in non-biodegradable plastic containers, sealed in plastic wrap, and covered in cardboard.  

“Yes, sadly, there is far too much single-use plastic packaging in the world,” Hunnes says. “Much packaging, especially plastic, does not get recycled properly and only seven percent of plastic in the U.S. ever gets recycled. The rest ends up in the landfill where it will never break down and may often end up in the ocean. Once in the ocean, it will photodegrade into smaller pieces (microplastics) that fish and other sea-creatures eat.”

Hunnes devotes an entire chapter to this in her new book, Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Sustainable Life, which comes out in January.  

Tip: try buying in bulk

When it comes to packaging, Hunnes encourages consumers to look for compostable packaging whenever and wherever it’s available. If plastic packaging is the only option, she recommends buying in bulk. For instance, avoid packages containing multiple single-size servings. “I get so sad when I see trail mix divided into one ounce packages within a larger package,” she says. “I prefer to get trail mix in bulk and then put it into my own reusable containers at home.”

She also buys the “ground meat” from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat because both packages are slightly better than the packaging of their pre-formed burgers. 

While researching this article, LeafScore reached out to Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Both didn’t respond. 

Despite that, Hunnes would like to see all of us advocate for better packaging by contacting companies to ask them to use biodegradable containers. “If we make enough noise, companies will hopefully start to listen,” she says. 

Taking baby steps

Mega retailers Walmart and Amazon have made a conscious effort to reduce the number of boxes and packing materials used in shipping products. Some towns, mine for instance, banned plastic bags from supermarkets, restaurants, and other local retailers. 

While we can praise companies and towns for boosting recycling programs, we still have a long way to go. Many of the packages that contain plant-based products contain multiple types of materials. 

“Some bio-based plastics can be made entirely from plant starches or made from plastic compounds mixed with plant starches,” Hunnes says. 

A report from Sierra Coating Technologies, LLC, a manufacturer of packaging, found that while recycling technology is improving, it’s your individual municipality that determines which materials get recycled and which don’t.  So, your town may accept a #6 plastic bottle, while your neighbor’s won’t. 

Your town may not recycle biodegradable plastics. If it does, it’s important to properly dispose of them. “If they are properly disposed of,” Hunnes says, “they can breakdown in months to humus and co2. It’s better than not degrading and turning into methane.”

Plant-based meat is still more sustainable than animal agriculture

Although plant-based meat does have a packaging problem, it is still a more sustainable option than factory raised meat. Even small reductions in our meat consumption can have a positive impact on the planet.

Giving up meat and dairy one or more days a week makes a major difference. “We would save the environment from thousands of tons of carbon emissions,” Hunnes says. “In fact, in one year, animal husbandry creates as much carbon emissions as the entire transportation sector. Eating less meat also reduces our water use by at least half.”

To put this into context:

  • One pound of beef requires between 2,000 and 8,000 gallons of water to produce. 
  • One gallon of cow’s milk requires 1950 gallons of water.
  • One pound of tofu requires 302 gallons of water to produce.
  • One pound of unprocessed oats requires 290 gallons of water to produce.

Factor packaging into purchasing decisions

In addition to buying in bulk, companies like Morningstar Farms, BOCA, Field Roast, and others sell their plant-based foods in cardboard recyclable packages. Cardboard boxes should be clean with no food inside and if there are any tape or labels attached to the outside, they’ll be removed during the recycling process. 

Despite the challenges, we can still make a difference by eating a plant-based diet (even if it’s just one day a week like Meatless Mondays).

When shopping, buy in bulk and look for products in biodegradable packages to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also, contact companies that produce products you purchase and ask them to change their packages to environmentally friendly ones.

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  1. Great story with an interesting angle. I very much enjoy plant-based foods, but have never given much thought to the packaging. More like this article, please!

  2. In the headline picture used, the Beyond Meat Sausage is actually packaged in a plant fiber packing made by a Phoenix-based company, Footprint. We need to give the company more shine for all it’s doing to eliminate single-use plastics.

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