The pasta sauce selection is pretty big in most American supermarkets. While I don’t often go looking for this item, preferring to make my own sauces when I can, there are times when the convenience of that jar of tomato sauce to put over my ravioli or spaghetti beckons. I first look to the ingredients and try to get one without high fructose corn syrup or sugar. Assuming I can find this (and it can be pretty hard!), then the deliberation begins: sauce quality being equal, should I choose the one in the jar made of glass or plastic?
Just a year ago, I would have thought the answer was obvious. The glass jar is better for the environment. Right? No yucky plastic waste on my conscience this time. But then I started doing more research on the subject for an article I was writing on food packaging waste for Mountain Xpress, and the answer became less clear.
Glass is heavier than plastic, so costs more in energy to transport. Plus, although theoretically endlessly recyclable, it is not being accepted for recycling anymore in various places across the country due to handling difficulty and cost (think glass shards cutting through conveyor belts and tires, and wearing through truck bottoms). So in many areas, unless it is reused by the consumer at home, that supposedly more eco-friendly glass is just going straight to the landfill.
Nancy and Barry Lawson, owners of Curbside Management, which handles recycling for the city of Asheville, told me that they would actually recommend that people choose plastic over glass for this reason. Plastics whose recycling symbol shows a number 1, 2, or 5, have decent markets and therefore a good chance of being transformed into some other good rather than landfilled. While the best solution for the sustainability-minded consumer, say the Lawsons, is to reduce consumption overall, choosing a recyclable plastic container over glass is better for the recycling industry and for reducing waste.
All else being equal, I’ve been finding myself favoring sauce in plastic jars recently, assuming I see that #1 sign inside the recycling symbol on the bottom. These are usually cheaper than the glass-jar option, so there’s that benefit as well.
But there are clearly more aspects of the issue to consider. How worried should we be, for instance, about plastic containers leaching chemicals into the food products they contain? I would definitely avoid heating food in plastic, for instance, but now I’m reading that acidic foods like tomatoes may actually absorb chemicals from plastic more readily than other foods (most references are to BPA-containing can liners, but I assume this applies to plastic jars and other plastic containers as well. See a general recent article on plastic contamination of food from Harvard Women’s Health Watch here.)
So, maybe my pasta-sauce-jar question is back to square one. Glass may be the safest choice health-wise, and a passable one sustainability-wise, too, if you live in a place where glass is still recycled (learn more about the “broken” glass recycling system in the US here), or if you can reuse the glass jar at home. Even better, though, I am reminding myself to gather up those tomatoes when in season and make and freeze or can enough special-recipe sauce to use throughout the year.