This story is part of a series on ocean plastics.
For the over-stretched parent who doesn’t have time to puree plums or soak grains overnight, portable plastic packs jammed with organic and healthful ingredients are a godsend.
On-the-go moms can just twist off the cap and hand a pouch of blueberry flax and oat to a hungry baby to suck on by himself. No spoon or spoon skills required.
While these packs are pricey ― a 4-ounce pouch can cost north of $2 ― families are willing to fork over the funds for the convenience factor. But this convenience comes with another price: Most of these plastic pouches can’t be recycled and are destined for landfills ― or worse, the oceans. The demand is growing even though reasonably priced alternatives are available that can be used over and over again.
The problem with the disposable pouches is that they’re made from multiple layers of materials and the recyclable components can’t be separated out, said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, the largest residential recycler in North America.
Empty food packs and other types of trash end up in the ocean due to a mix of mismanaged trash disposal and littering. When a person litters, for example, that item can easily blow into a storm drain, travel through sewer pipes and eventually land in waterways.
Stuffing loads of unusual and healthful foods into plastic casings isn’t sitting well with environmentalists.
“There’s definitely a push for clean eating both for kids and grown-ups,” Lindsay Gallimore, a mother of two who blogs about green issues, told HuffPost. “But all the buzz words that are associated with a ‘greener’ lifestyle are packaged into a packaging that’s not green at all.”
If the baby food industry doesn’t come up with a solution soon, the amount of plastic piling up from these products is only going to grow at an explosive rate.
In 2015, sales from baby food pouches reached $45 million. That was up from $8 million in 2010, according to a report from the Freedonia Group, a market research firm.
The demand for this niche product is increasing as oceans are being overloaded with plastic.
By 2050, experts estimate oceans will have more plastic than fish (by weight). Plastics are believed to threaten at least 600 different wildlife species, according to the Ocean Conservancy. When plastic reaches the landfill, it can take up to 1,000 years to decompose and can leak pollutants into the soil and water.
While plenty of plastic products are harming the environment, activists take specific issue with baby food packs because a number of convenient and eco-friendly alternatives exist, even for time-strapped parents.
“I can’t get everyone to use washable menstrual pads. I certainly can’t get everyone to use cloth diapers,” Gallimore said. “Feeding your baby healthy purees could happen in so many other ways that don’t require the little squishy packs.”
Gallimore likened the advent of plastic baby food packs to the K-Cup phenomenon. While some of these one-time-use coffee pods are technically recyclable, the process is so painstaking that consumers are more likely to throw them in the trash after using them for a few seconds. In fact, John Sylvan, the inventor of the Keurig machine, said he regrets the innovation.
“It was along the same lines as K-Cups for coffee,” Gallimore said of the similarities between the coffee pods and plastic baby food packs. “We were doing fine without them before.”
Before the plastic squeezy packs hit the market, baby food was mostly packaged in glass jars, which are recyclable, reusable and cheaper. Responding to the surge of plastic packs, a number of companies have developed receptacles that work similarly, but can be washed and used more than once.
Rhoost, for example, manufactures 4.5-ounce plastic pouches that can be filled with pureed food repeatedly and washed by hand or in the dishwasher. They run $12.99 for a four-pack.
Though most of the disposable plastic packs can’t be recycled, some experts say there is some merit to them.
They usually require fewer raw materials to produce than recyclable materials, which results in net energy and greenhouse gas emissions savings, Bell, of Waste Management, said. The packages are also designed in such a way to reduce food waste, which is where the “greatest environmental savings are realized,” he said.
Hain Celestial ― the company behind Earth’s Best and Ella’s Kitchen baby food ― is reducing its plastic footprint by partnering with recycling company TerraCycle. After consumers finish with their packs, they can download free shipping labels and send the waste to TerraCycle.
Since the products can’t be separated, they’re shredded and melted into a plastic and pelletized. That material is then sold to manufacturers who can use recycled plastic in their products, Lauren Taylor, TerraCycle’s global director for communications, said.
While this process is a start, it’s not capturing many plastic packages. Celestial sells about 20 million pouches annually in the U.S. alone, said Jared Simon, vice president of marketing for Better-for-You-Baby at Hain Celestial United States. TerraCycle has collected about 3.3 million pouches in the U.S. and the U.K. since it started doing so in 2013.
Even if those numbers increased, environmentalists likely still wouldn’t be satisfied.
“Recycling is awesome ― it’s great. But recycling is not the be all and end all of environmentalism. It’s expensive and it’s not a perfect solution.” Gallimore said. “Instead, how can we replace what we’re using and throwing away with something that we don’t throw away?”