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Can I Reuse That Package?

Packaging plays a variety of roles with food. Some can be reused while others should not be used to store leftovers

TEXARKANA, Ark. –

Today’s foods come in a variety of packaging materials ranging from cans and bottles to plastic tubs, pouches, bags and wraps. Some of these materials are designed so the food can be heated in the package. Others are made so that part of the food can be used and then the container resealed to keep the food fresh until the consumer is ready for the remainder.

What role does packaging play in food?

Packaging plays a variety of roles with food. Most importantly, it protects the food from exposure and damage during distribution. In addition, it provides a means of offering consumers nutrition and ingredient information, cooking instructions, product weight, advertising, brand identification and pricing.

The Food and Drug Administration assesses the initial safety of packaging materials for food contact, however, reuse of packaging materials has been studied much less.

The following recommendations might prove useful when deciding when and/or how packaging materials should be reused.

 1. Packages from products other than food should never be used as food containers. They have not been tested for safety with food systems and they may contain small amounts of non-food residues. For example, do not use plastic laundry detergent buckets for storing dry cereal.

2. Glass can be reused for all foods and for all processes, regardless of what food was originally packaged in the glass container. The exception to this rule is that one-trip glass jars should not be used for pressure processing in the home canner. Reuse of the lid or cover, however, is subject to the considerations discussed in the following recommendations.

3. Reuse packaging materials only with foods similar in acidity and in sugar and fat content to the food originally packaged in the material. For example, do not use a plastic shortening container to make salad dressing containing a substantial amount of vinegar.

4. Reuse packaging materials only with foods that will be exposed to the same types of processes. For example, do not melt butter in the microwave oven using a plastic margarine container. In general, do not subject food packages to heat unless the instructions on the original package give heating information. Many food products are hot-filled into containers at low temperatures and the packages will not tolerate heating.

5. Do not reuse porous packaging materials such as paper, paperboard and expanded foams (for example, Styrofoam cups and foam meat trays). They have air spaces that will harbor food particles and microorganisms. This is especially important with young children using foam trays for craft projects.

6. Do no reuse microwave packages that contain heat susceptors for browning or crisping.  The adhesives that hold the susceptor to the package may be damaged by the original use so that the material is more likely to migrate into the food if it is used again.

7. If you store foods with strong odors or flavors in reused food packages, the packaging material may become permeated with the odor/flavor chemicals. Some packaging materials allow these chemicals to pass through, and the odors or flavors are transferred to other foods stored in the same area. Other materials accumulate the odor/flavor molecules in the polymeric packaging and then release them into a subsequently stored product.

8. When materials are safe for use in the microwave oven, they are usually labeled for such use.  If you don’t know if the material is safe for use in the microwave, don’t use it. Soft plastics are especially likely to flake, blister, deform and melt. This can both allow plastic polymer or additives to penetrate into the food and can make it necessary to clean up messy spills in your oven.

9. If you are using a flexible film bag like a bread wrapper for food storage, always use it with the outside printed side out. Printing inks may contain materials that are not meant for human consumption, and they may migrate into food if they come into direct contact with it.

10. If you store a non-food item in a food container, do not reuse the container later for food storage. Many plastics pick up small amounts of the substances stored in them and release them later. Motor oil stored in plastic milk jugs will later be present in lemonade if you store lemonade in the same container.

11. Use only food-grade paper in direct contact with food products. Paper processing uses a variety of chemicals and the raw materials can contain residues which would be unacceptable in foods. Food-grade paper products are manufactured by processes with minimal residues, and the finished product is routinely tested.

One of the most basic rules of food safety applies to reusing packaging materials as well as to the foods themselves - When In Doubt, Throw It Out.

For more information, contact the Miller County Extension Office, 870-779-3609 or visit us in room 215 at the Miller County Courthouse. We're online at cdue@uaex.edu, on Facebook at UAEXMillerCountyFCS, on Twitter @MillerCountyFCS or on the web at uaex.edu/Miller.

By Carla Due
County Extension Agent - FCS
The Cooperative Extension Service

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