woman's hands holding bell peppers wrapped in plastic

When you buy a packaged meal at the grocery store, you may think the price you pay at checkout is the total cost. Unfortunately, it’s not. The total cost includes the fee you pay for garbage and recycling services to haul away the packaging.

When you consider how much packaged food really costs — health issues aside — it’s enough to make you want to stop eating it.

It’s a Strange Cycle

Food manufacturers package foods to make life more convenient. We buy that food and then pay the city to either recycle or dump the packaging. It’s a cycle that forces the consumer to pay for something that they don’t even want to keep.

Sometimes packaging makes sense, but not always. For instance, Trader Joe’s packages the majority of its vegetables and fruit, including avocados and oranges. Yet, avocados and oranges are also available in loose bins. Other manufactures are even more excessive and package individual bananas and even jelly beans.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 23% of landfill waste comes from packaging and containers. Most of that packaging comes from food. That 23% may not seem like much, but it translates to billions of pounds of trash.

There was a time before landfills when food was prepared from scratch and scraps were naturally composted. There was no need to haul food wrappers to the landfill because food containers were reused or naturally decomposed.

How did we get here, and what can we do about it? First, let’s take a brief look at how processed foods became the norm.

How Packaged Foods Got Their Start

According to Modern Pioneer Mom, some processed foods were available as early as 1910: Aunt Jemima’s maple syrup, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Oreo cookies, Crisco, and Marshmallow Fluff. It wasn’t a lot, and there wasn’t much of an environmental concern.

Oreos have been around for more than 100 years. Photo: Adobe Stock

By the 1920s, the task of preparing meals from scratch began to seem unnecessarily time-consuming as more ready-to-cook foods were available. Savvy advertisers promised that prepared foods like canned and frozen vegetables and fruits would save time in the kitchen, and people ate it up.

Prepared foods became practical in the 1920s because most people had gas stoves, refrigerators, and other kitchen tools needed to store and prepare a packaged meal. By the 1940s, packaged food really took off.

Thanks to World War II and the need to feed deployed soldiers, we saw the birth of convenience foods like dehydrated foods, instant coffee, and cake mix. At this time, some people were still incinerating their trash. Most U.S. households had garbage service, but now the cans were filling up with food packaging.

By the 1950s, it was common practice to purchase convenience foods that were packaged and processed. Again, advertisers were quick to market packaged foods like Tang and Swanson TV dinners in magazines and on television — promoting them as a time-saving alternative to spending hours in the kitchen.

Today, it’s hard to find something that doesn’t come in a package unless it comes directly from the farmer’s market or your own garden.

Is It Possible To Avoid Packaged Foods?

We don’t have direct control over what materials the manufacturers choose to package foods, but we always have the option not to buy. Avoiding all packaged foods, however, is more difficult than it seems.

However, if you’re afraid of boring those in your household with tomatoes and potatoes, you can prepare meals with spices and vegetables that are popular in other countries. Spices like turmeric and saffron go great with chicken and can be purchased in bulk with your own bags, too.

Toss some healthy variety in the mix by switching from potatoes to mashed cauliflower, or use one of these special tools to turn zucchini into “spaghetti” noodles. Whenever you use new vegetables, be sure to let your kids see them before you cook them up; they’ll probably find them fascinating.

Exploring recipes using fruits and vegetables you haven’t tried is a great way to avoid packaging. Chances are, there are plenty of vegetables you’ve never noticed in the grocery store simply because you didn’t grow up eating them.

You can also learn how to make your own yogurt to avoid the mass amount of sugar added to commercial yogurts.

Can We Encourage Manufacturers To Change Their Packaging?

Food manufacturers have the option to use eco-friendly packaging materials, and some of them do. However, this results in a higher cost to the consumer that some people just aren’t willing (or able) to pay.

Ideally, it would be wonderful to bring accountability to food manufacturers for their choice of materials in relation to environmental impact. The FDA does regulate materials that food manufacturers can use for packaging. However, these regulations don’t consider environmental impact, but rather, the potential migration of unapproved substances into food.

Do you think food manufacturers should be required to chip in for garbage and recycling programs if they don’t use eco-friendly materials? If so, what would it take to implement this type of program?

Originally published on April 25, 2018, this article was updated in May 2021.

By Anna Johansson

Anna is a freelance writer, researcher and business consultant. A columnist for Entrepreneur.com, HuffingtonPost.com and more, Anna loves enjoying the great outdoors with her family. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.