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Q. Dear Umbra,

I’ve been using food pouches for my kids for a couple of years and have horrible guilt. Lately, I’ve been saving them and have been trying to figure out if they can be recycled. I think I can bring the tops to the Preserve Gimme 5 bin at Whole Foods, but it also looks like TerraCycle will take both the pouch and cap. But then I found an old article saying TerraCycle is all about greenwashing. Can you please help me figure this out?


A. Dearest Stephanie,

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I don’t have any kids, and I’m no toddler. But I confess I’ve passed those baby/toddler food pouches at the grocery store on more than one occasion and thought, “Mmm, I wonder if I could get away with eating that as my afternoon snack.” I mean, roasted pumpkin and coconut rice? Pears, mangoes, and papayas? Don’t mind if I do!

I can see the appeal of ready-to-eat treats in such packages even beyond the delectable-sounding flavors. Parents like ‘em because they’re a convenient, packable, (slightly) less messy way to keep those little mouths fed. Companies like ‘em because they’re shelf-stable and cheap to produce. And believe it or not, there are reasons for environmentalists to like ‘em, too. Their shelf-stableness saves on energy because they don’t need to be refrigerated; they’re much smaller and lighter than alternative packages, like glass jars, so they require fewer resources to make; and they’re also cheaper and less fuel-intensive to ship. All these benefits help explain why we’re seeing more and more foods, from trail mix to coffee to pickles, pop up in flexible pouches.

But you’re familiar with their major downside, Stephanie: Flexible pouches are very difficult to recycle. That’s because they’re often made of multiple layers of different materials — including plastics such as PET and PE, aluminum foil, and paperboard — glued together. Individually, some of these layers are easily recyclable; but lasagna’d together, recycling them becomes a complicated and pricey endeavor. It’s the same issue that bedevils those aseptic cartons for soup, soy milk, and the like.

You’re right that the tops, at least, are a bit easier to resurrect into new products. The ones made from #2 plastic are curbside recyclable in some cities (other places can’t accept them because they’re too small to be sorted efficiently). If you buy Plum Organics brand, then the #5 plastic caps, as you note, can be dropped off or mailed in to Preserve’s Gimme 5 recycling program. But the pouches are trickier, and the New Jersey–based TerraCycle recycling program is one of the few outfits that does accept kid pouches from a few brands.

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Good news: I’ve seen nothing to make me think TerraCycle is greenwashing anything. In its model, consumers send in hard-to-recycle items; the company then chops them, melts them, and sells them to be made into things like benches and pallets. Other companies help pay for the process in exchange for the right to print “recyclable through TerraCycle” on their goodies. Some criticize TerraCycle on the grounds that this doesn’t encourage manufacturers to switch to easily recyclable packaging; TerraCycle counters that these lighter-weight packages are an overall environmental win (for all the reasons we discussed above), so it’s better to keep them in play.

My take? In a perfect world, nobody would use any throwaway packaging at all, so there would be no need for such a service. But we don’t live in such a world. Yes, it would produce less waste for you to make all your toddler snacks at home and feed them to the kids on reusable dishes. It would also produce less packaging waste if we all grew our own fruits and vegetables and baked our own potato chips. But that’s not doable for most people in this day and age. I say, reduce your consumption as best you can, reuse as best you can, and then recycle as a third line of defense. And shipping hard-to-recycle items to TerraCycle is better than landfilling them. (If your kids are real pouch fiends and you have the time for DIY puree, you can take it down one more notch by switching to these reusable pouches instead of disposables.)

I absolve you of your guilt over squeezable pouches, Stephanie. They’re small fry, not one of the things worth much of your concern. Mom guilt has reached epic proportions in this country, so let’s make snack time, at least, a feel-good time for all.