In the US, the food and beverage industry is a highly regulated trade. Licensing is a rigorous process that goes through the different branches of government. One requirement that small business owners have to satisfy when selling food, water, and other beverages is safe packaging.

Plastic bottles and containers are some of the most convenient food packaging options. In this blog, we discuss the best types of plastic for packaging food and water.

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What Are Plastics?

packaging

As the name suggests, plastics are pliable materials, though their pliability depends on their composition and environmental conditions like temperature. They are made of long molecules that can be derived from both artificial and natural sources. Some of the raw materials used for making plastics include crude oil, natural gas, coal, salt, and cellulose.

Plastics all have one characteristic in common—they are moldable at sufficiently high temperatures. Some are even elastic under ordinary conditions. Many industries take advantage of this attribute to fashion a multitude of items, and we know this because we see them everywhere.

Some of your business equipment could be made of plastics, such as desktop and portable thermal printers, computers, stretch wrap machines, etc. More relevant to this discussion is that they can make nifty packaging for food, water, coffee, and other drinks.

What Are the Best Types of Plastic for Packaging Food and Water?

The FDA approves many plastic types for packaging perishables, but three have more advantages than the others.

Polyethylene (PE)

food packaging design

PE has the simplest chemical structure in this group, but it is also the most chemically stable. It is a good container for corrosive substances like acids and caustic soda. PE containers have many applications in the food and beverage industry.

Two forms of this plastic are used mainly for packaging water and perishables—high-density PE (HDPE) and low-density PE (LDPE).

HDPE is rigid because its molecules are more tightly packed. It can withstand temperatures as high as 248ºF, but this does not mean that it is protected from microwave rays. However, it is a good material for frozen food and beverages.

HDPE is normally used for packaging acidic perishables and additives, like citrus fruit juices and vinegar. Plastic grocery bags, milk jugs, and chocolate syrup bottles are also commonly made from this plastic.

LDPE is the tough material that stretch wrap is made of. The temperatures it can tolerate are even lower, making it non-microwavable like HDPE. We see it a lot in markets, alone or paired up with Styrofoam, to package fruits, sandwiches, salads, meats, seafood, desserts, and other frozen foods. LDPE’s elasticity makes it a popular material for wrapping leftovers and making labels for squeezable containers.

Polypropylene (PP)

plastic container bottle

PP has a slightly more complicated composition than PE, and heating can make it more vulnerable to strong chemicals. However, it forms rigid plastics that can endure microwave energy and higher temperatures than HDPE. So it is good for microwaving food. 

PP also has rigid and soft forms. Rigid polypropylene is the stuff of microwave-safe plastic lunch boxes and tumblers. Soft polypropylene is stiffer than LDPE. It is commonly sold as biaxially oriented PP (BOPP) and is the main component of the labels used on rigid bottles. Some freezer labels are also made of BOPP.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

different types of plastic

PET is a type of polyester, so it has the most complicated chemistry of the three. It is also the least stable toward harsh chemicals. Although it melts at higher temperatures than PP, PET is not microwave-safe because it absorbs more microwave energy.

PET also has rigid and soft forms. Rigid PET is the plastic that water bottles and some soda containers are made of. Biaxially oriented PET (BOPET), its soft form, is used for packaging condiments and powdered food. Clamshell food plastic containers are also made of PET.

There has been some concern about PET’s safety in the previous years because of possible phthalate leaching. Phthalate can harm consumers due to their hormonal effects. However, the evidence is insufficient to prove that this plastic can significantly raise phthalate levels in water, food, and other perishables.

These plastics are generally safer for use than other types. Additionally, they can be metalized and used for packaging various types of food. Metallization is a good way of making food packaging stand out.

What Are the Advantages of Plastics?

small plastic food container

Although plastics have earned a bad reputation among environmentalists over the years, many consumers are still unfazed about using them. Below are some of their advantages.

Plastics are Relatively Inexpensive

We already discussed the prices of different plastic types in our blog, Inexpensive Food Packaging Ideas for Startups. US wholesalers can sell them for as low as 1/10 of a cent and no greater than 15 cents apiece. Compare that to metal and glass jars, which tend to cost higher by at least 5 cents.

Plastics are Leak-proof

This is one of their advantages over paper. Plastics make it safe to ship food, especially liquids and frozen edibles that produce moisture when thawed. They keep food safe from contact with the coolant carbon dioxide and other potential contaminants. Many customers prefer PET bottles for beverages like water and soda because they are reclosable.

Plastics are Chemically Resistant

Chemical stability enables plastics to hold acid and alkaline liquids. They’re not just perfect for bottling water, which has a neutral pH, but many other beverages as well.

Plastic Can Be Made Transparent or Opaque

In Why Is Packaging Important? we pointed out the role of transparency in packaging food. We emphasized the same concept when serving beverages in How to Make and Design Beer labels

The sight of real food is more appealing to people than that of a food photo. Studies show that transparent packages sell more food and beverages than opaque ones labeled with their pictures. On the other hand, opaque packaging is also needed for light-sensitive perishables like milk, hoppy beer, medicines, and many others.

Plastics are Sturdier Than Paper

Rigid plastics are able to protect food better than cardboard boxes. You can ensure that your customers will have a good unboxing experience by using sturdy packaging for their orders. Similarly, soft plastics make a more durable label facestock than paper.

Many Types of Plastic are FDA-Approved For Packaging Food

PE, PP, and PET are proven to be safe for packaging food. Chemical leaching is not a problem. These plastics will not spoil food or let microbes in when used properly.

Plastics are Lightweight

Plastics are lighter than paper, metal, and glass. Lightweight packaging is an advantage when shipping food and beverages, especially to international destinations. It helps reduce your costs and stretch wrap waste

Food and Beverage Plastics are Recyclable.

Plastics can be substantially recycled with a little effort. Post-consumer plastic derived from water bottles and food containers is currently in demand in the cosmetics industry and other trades. When you recycle plastic, you have a chance to save the planet and make money at the same time.

Polypropylene is Microwavable

Being microwave-safe is convenient for busy people, which is why they prefer some products in plastic rather than glass. Paper is also microwave-safe but is not the best material for packaging soups.

Plastics are Pliable

Plastics can be molded into many types of packaging, making them suitable for many different products. Squeezable packs, juice and water bottles, bread bags—you name it. Plastic can be all these things.

Plastics are Freezable

Plastics retain their elasticity at fairly low temperatures, making them suitable for expanding frozen liquids like water. This quality also makes them good raw materials for making freezing label facestock and label adhesives. Substances that stiffen easily in the cold are prone to breakage and can make an unsightly mess in a grocery freezer.

Plastics Can Be Made Resealable

Resealable plastics prolong the storage of food served in jumbo packs. They likewise allow customers to recycle the wrappings when their contents have been totally consumed. Reusable packages help minimize plastic waste and save food costs.

Plastics are Washable

This is another feature that enables customers to recycle plastics. Washable containers can also be repurposed as decorative items.

Plastics Are Easy To Label

You can use any type of label on plastics, such as sheet labels and direct thermal labelsFood and beverage labels help you stay FDA-compliant. Health information on these stickers influences buying decisions. Additionally, plastic barcode labels are very durable, so they let your products meet international business standards easily.

Plastics Are Easy to Design

Plastics can be colored, metalized, glossed, etc. to make them stand out. The packaging design is essential to branding, an important marketing strategy that lets startups persist through the years.

These qualities make plastic a hit among consumers and a marketable packaging option for business owners.

What Are the Disadvantages of Plastics?

disadvantages of using plastic

While plastics have many benefits, they also have a few drawbacks.

It Takes a Lot Of Effort to Recycle Plastics

Synthetic or artificially made plastics are non-biodegradable. They may be recyclable, but it takes much effort to do it. Consequently, only a third of segregated plastic is actually recycled in the US.

Some Plastics are Hazardous to Health

PE, PP, and PET are safe to use on food. However, some plastics pose health hazards when manufactured or consumed. Examples are PVC and Styrofoam, which, although FDA-approved, appear on California’s Proposition 65.

Plastics are Relatively More Expensive Than Paper

Plastics can cost as much as 30 times the price of paper. They can dent your profit if you don’t have a sound marketing strategy.

Plastics Can Break Under a Heavy Weight When Stacked

Plastics can be used as lightweight substitutes for wood and metal when making pallets. However, they are relatively weaker under very heavy weights and break more easily on impact. Reinforced plastic is quite expensive, although it can be cost-effective in the long run if demand for your products is high.

Not All Approved Plastics Can Be Reused on Food Safely

PET water bottles accumulate bacteria through small surface breaks, which result from rough handling and repeated impact. Therefore, recycling this plastic can risk water-borne illnesses.

These disadvantages of plastics are few and can be remedied. Some of the measures you can take are:

  • Promoting plastic recycling in your community.
  • Choosing only safe plastics and using them properly.
  • Balancing your packaging options to maximize your costs.
  • Avoiding pallet overloading.
  • Adding warning labels about the safety of reusing certain plastic types on food, water, and other beverages.

Conclusion

Plastics are pliable materials that provide convenient food and beverage packaging options. The best types of plastic to use on perishables are PE, PP, and PET because they do not leach harmful substances. They have far more advantages than disadvantages, and the latter can be remedied with a little effort.

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