Sneaky plastics in our food packaging

20 June 2019

Did you see the video posted by MEL Science revealing the hidden layer of plastic inside aluminium cans? If you missed it, watch it below




Plastic is typically used in canned food and drinks to stop metal leaching into the food or drink. Carbonated drinks and some foods have high acid levels meaning they leach faster. Even if the food are not high in acid the metal can still leach. If you see cans are BPA free this doesn't mean it's free of plastic, instead the BPA has been replaced with BPS or BPF. You can read here about studies being conducted on the BPA replacement as to whether they are safe or not here.

Because the plastic amount is small it's typically removed during the recycling process usually by high heat when cans are recycled.

These type of plastic linings are not solely in aluminium cans either. The metal lids on glass jars will have a lining of plastic too just in case the food comes in contact with the lid. This is the main reason why businesses accepting glass bottles and jars for refill will not use the metal lids as the plastic will be removed during the sanitation process. Those metal lids are usually sent off for recycling and they buy new ones, or use plastic lids.

There are other types of packaging with sneaky plastic hiding within. The most popular item most people will know is the cartons used for milk (including plant based milks) and juices, where the plastic is layered between the cardboard. The plastic helps stop the milk from leaking while lasting longer on the shelf. Take away cups used for coffee also have a layer of plastic otherwise that hot drink would leak also. Even some tea bags contain plastic.

Below are a few items that have have plastic linings and other chemicals you may not know about.

A cardboard box at a conference (food was supplied), coffee cup found outside the house (my street sits just off a main shopping strip. Alot of coffee cups get left behind near us), ice cream (again, another littered item) and the chip cup (asked staff for the chips on the plate but the request didn't make it to the kitchen).



To find out if a cardboard or paper based item like the ones above have a lining of plastic is simple. I cut off a piece and place into hot water, then let it sit for 10 minutes. The plastic will seperate from the cardboard. Each one had a lining of plastic. It was the cardboard box which surprised me the most. But there you go, plastic is sneaky and almost everywhere. This type of plastic could be recycled via RedCycle soft plastic drop off at the major supermarkets...but who is going to do that?? Plus the resources going into creating these for a single use is not needed for most of us.


A friend was going to throw out this pack of puff pastry. It has been over six year since I had used this kind of product but I knew there was thin layers of plastic between the pastry but as the cardboard outer packaging caught the light I saw a sheen that had me wonder if this had sneaky plastic. So I did the hot water test...and yes, there was hidden plastic again.



I'm not anti plastic, simply anti the misuse. With the rise in awareness of plastic pollution, I'm beginning to see more and more food businesses swap out takeaway food packaging for paper based options because they want to do the right thing. However these will be lined with petroleum based plastic or plant-based plastics. The thing is, how would a customer know there is even plastic lining these items let alone what type of plastic. If it can be recycled will the lining be recycled with the paper? will it break down? or will it be sent to landfill? If people think it's compostable at home will the sneaky plastic end up in the compost pile? None of this information is available on the packaging and staff rarely know themselves. And if it's not lined with plastic will the packaging contain PFAS?

Related blog posts: Is shopping at bulk stores or co-ops the best way to reduce packaging waste? Zero waste shopping does not exist, is there a solution?

So who needs to make changes. The Government should make it a requirement for all companies to explain in detail on the packaging what it's made of similar to the The Australasian Recycling Symbol. Ingredients for food are mandatory so why not our packaging. If a cardboard based product is going to be easier to compost with a compostable plant based lining, then why not enforce this as the standard lining too. That way there is no confusion for composting at home and encourage more public composting bins. I'm not 100% aware what would happen should this kind of compostable plastic lined paper end up in the recycling stream and i've been waiting for answers from a couple of sources. Plastic water bottles and plastic containers made of compostable plastics do contaminate regular plastic recycling. 

As you can see there is a lot of processes that need to change. The funny thing is the solutions are easy for most of us when it comes to avoiding this confusion in take-away packaging:

  1. Take the time to sit down and eat a meal on a real plate. Get away from the office desk and use the time to enjoy a break.
  2. Order takeaway in your own container. Simply phone ahead to see if the cafe or restaurant will allow you to bring a container to use instead of a single-use option. Visit TrashlessTakeaway.com.au  for a list in your area.
  3. Australian businesses Returnr and ReTub are partnering with business encouraging the reuse and refill of food containers. Customers simply put down a deposit for a reusable container when paying for the meal. Customers get the deposit back when the container is returned. This system is not new, India has been offering returnable tifins for a long time.

I understand some of our food will always need packaging including takeaway. And I'm aware we won't give up take-away food, not because our modern society loves it, simply humans have always enjoyed some form of takeaway food. 

However when I see what looks like complex “solutions” to the problems of packaging, in particular takeaway, rarely do there conversations address our need to change mindsets. Packaging made of seaweed or mushrooms....great, but how much would we need to create this for takeaway packaging alone. Does it just exacerbate the go go go loop we are stuck in. The packaging needs to change but also so do we. 

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