If you don't know what a squeeze pack is, you haven't been hanging out with enough new moms or serious athletes. You'll know soon, though: The silvery, flexible, single-serve packs, usually topped with a plastic screw-off lid, are suddenly everywhere. They're also nonrecyclable, made from petroleum products that pollute at both ends of their life cycle, and billions of them end up in landfills every year. More and more are piling up all the time.
Actually, squeeze packs have been around for a while. Remember fast-food ketchup packs? Heinz makes most of these, as the corporation's website cheerfully points out. "Heinz sells 11 billion single-serve packets of ketchup per year around the world. That's 2 packets for every person on earth." Um, is that a good thing?
Squeeze packs of sports gels have also been around for a while, but larger, screw-topped packs really took off about five years ago, when a few manufacturers began stuffing them with single servings of applesauce. Other companies took notice. This year in San Francisco, squeeze packs of fruit—including chunks of pear and mango purée—were all over the Fancy Food Show.
"Buyers tell us that squeezeables are one of the fastest-growing categories in the whole food industry," says Lance Gentry, president of Justin's Nut Butter. The company is concerned enough about finding sustainable options for its single-serve packs of nut butter that it held a squeeze pack summit last year. "Moms on the go love them," Gentry says. "They're really taking off."
Billions sold every year! Isn't that great? Well, no. First of all, the packs are holding fruit. What function does a package serve that the skin on a pear, say, doesn't already serve? How many people actually think that an apple is just too inconvenient?
As a mom who packs lunches, I get the appeal of something all sealed up in a neat wrapper, but squeeze packs are evil, clearly. Gentry explains that they're made of three layers: an outer plastic skin with the brand, an aluminum layer in the middle, and an inner layer of plastic. They're efficient for keeping acidic foods like fruit and ketchup from oxidizing, but when it comes to being sustainable and recyclable they suck.
The aluminum in the middle would be recyclable if you could get at it, but it's covered with two layers of nonrecyclable plastic made of fossil fuels. Gentry says that Justin's is working on a new pack that will be made of 30-percent renewable materials—instead of the fossil-fuel plastic on the outside, it'll be sheathed in eucalyptus- or corn-based plastic.
"It's so cost-prohibitive," says Gentry, noting that traditional squeeze packs cost about a penny, while those from a sustainable producer like Innovia cost four times that much. For a company like Gentry's, that can mean the difference between survival or failure.
Justin's has gotten good press for its less-bad squeeze packs, and isn't shy about blasting its planet-wasting cousins. "Heinz is open about how many packs it sells, and doesn't plan to change a thing," Gentry says. "There are more and more squeeze packs all the time, and the consumer doesn't seem to care."
Come on, parents: Is it really that hard to pack applesauce in a reusable container for your kid's lunch? Especially if it means avoiding adding trashing the planet?
Image source: Dole Food Company, Inc.