Foil Insulated Bag

Packaging Problems

Dear Sustainability Sam,

How can I reuse those insulated foil lined bags I receive with grocery deliveries?

– Rita


Thanks for the question, Rita!  This question is critical for anyone who is trying to live a more sustainable existence.  It can be broadened into a much larger question like: What do I do with the packaging that my consumer needs come packed in?  The answer, unfortunately,  is not an easy one.  For anyone who has ever tried to live a zero waste lifestyle or even just reduce their waste footprint, we know that consumer packaging is a big problem.  Once you are made aware of the problem, you begin to see unnecessary and unsustainable packaging almost everywhere you look and it can drive you bonkers.  

But some packaging is, of course, essential.  And in those cases, if it isn’t compostable or recyclable, what can you do with it?  Finding ways to reuse your packaging is a great way to ensure your packaging isn’t used only once before becoming waste.  It can take some leg work and some imagination to find other ways to reuse packaging but here are some ideas for what to do with food delivery packaging like the insulated foil lined bags.

  1. Contact the company that uses the packaging and ask them to take it back. Some companies seeking to limit their product footprint may take back their packaging to be reused.  For example, the website for Imperfect Foods says they will take their food delivery packaging back to be reused with other customers.  They have stopped doing so because of the pandemic but may begin doing so again, if pressed.  You might want to check with other grocery store chains that do deliveries and ask them if they will take their packaging back as well.
  2. Contact local public schools.  Schools have been providing school lunches to kids throughout the pandemic.  They may be able to repurpose your food delivery packaging while the pandemic continues.
  3. Contact nonprofits that provide food to the community to see if they could use the packaging.  Here are some local organizations that provide hot meals and food to people in need that may be able to use your packaging. 
  • Meals on Wheels
  • North Country Food Alliance
  • Loaves and Fishes 
  • Waite House Food Shelf
  • House of Charity Food Center
  • People Serving People

This is not an exhaustive list. There are many others that can be found with a simple internet search.  

Unfortunately, many places may not want to take packaging donations from the public or may be prevented from doing so by local ordinances.  And holding on to packaging and watching it pile up in your home with no obvious place to reuse it is no solution either.  It is these conundrums that are most frustrating.  This is where we as consumers need to demand that companies and municipalities do better.   If companies want to use unsustainable packaging then the onus on responsibly disposing of that packaging should be on the company and not the consumer.  Companies need to place a higher priority on ensuring that not only their products are environmentally friendly but that their packaging and delivery methods are as well.  We, as consumers, can choose not to buy products that do not meet our standards for sustainable packaging.  We can also lobby/petition those companies to demand change. If you would like to get involved in this issue or just learn more about it here are some great resources:

Similarly, municipalities can help here, too.  Just as Minneapolis has implemented a single-use bag fee, so must other nearby cities and towns.  Minneapolis has also required that take out food containers be compostable or recyclable.  Other nearby towns and cities need to follow suit.  Municipalities can and should also lobby state and federal governments for legislation that shifts the responsibility for waste reduction and recycling onto companies so that municipal dollars can be spent on critical city needs instead of recycling programs.  See this recent article in the New York Times where the state of New York is doing just that. 

We thank you, Rita, for your conscientious question, and for your awareness that simply “throwing it away” is not only wasteful but unsustainable as well.  We fear our response may not be the panacea you were looking for but your question is useful as a tool for raising awareness among our readers and for understanding the depth and scope of the problem of packaging. If we are all mindful of this issue and demand change then this question may lose its relevance in the future.  Let’s hope so!

-Sustainability Sam