I try to avoid single-use packaging wherever I can, from food and beverages to health and beauty products to household cleaning. But there’s one item that keeps clinging to me: plastic wrap. Most of the time I have no use for it—I keep leftovers, lunches and snacks in reusable containers and mason jars. But then I find myself faced with a piece of cheese or a cut avocado—something that needs to be tightly wrapped to avoid spoiling or drying out. When I don’t have a reusable option on hand, I reach for the cling wrap.
I’m not alone. According to U.S. Census data and the Simmons National Consumer Survey, 5.3 million Americans used 10 or more rolls of plastic wrap in 2020. That’s 53 million rolls of plastic wrap in the U.S. alone! (We don’t have data for Canada.) And that doesn’t include what’s used by the food service industry. Even if everyone bought only the smallest roll of plastic wrap (30 metres) that adds up to 1,590,000,000 metres of plastic film. That’s enough plastic to wrap around the earth 40 times. Every year.
Plastic wrap has become such a staple, it’s easy to forget that it didn’t always exist. The original ingredient, polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC), was discovered by accident in 1933 by Ralph Wiley, a lab worker at Dow Chemical. Wiley was in charge of cleaning beakers, and he found a sticky substance in one beaker that wouldn’t wash out. The plastic resin was initially developed into a spray used by the military to line fighter planes and boots. It wasn’t until 1949 that Dow Chemical developed the first plastic wrap, dubbed Saran Wrap.
Due to concerns over the toxicity of PVDC, most plastic wrap is now made with low-density polyethylene (LDPE). But although LDPE doesn’t carry the same health risks as its predecessor, it’s difficult to recycle—it’s so thin and sticky that it can clog machines. Most municipalities require plastic wrap to go in the trash. And it adds up. It’s estimated that humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s, 6.3 billion of which has piled up in landfill and the environment. Here in Canada, 82 percent of plastic is landfilled.
Although plastic wrap has a short lifespan, its afterlife is much longer. According to some estimates, plastic can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to break down. And even when it does decompose, plastic simply breaks down into microplastics, which are particles less than 5 mm in diameter.
An estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in oceans every year. Larger plastics can entangle fish and wildlife, while microplastics are easily ingested. These can block digestive tracts or pierce organs, leading to injury and death. (A stomach full of plastic also reduces the urge to eat, leading to starvation.) At least 700 species, including seabirds, fish and marine mammals, are known to ingest plastic.
Thankfully, there are plenty of options that help reduce plastic pollution. Here are some great alternatives to plastic wrap.
Beeswax wraps are made of fabric soaked in beeswax, jojoba oil and tree resin. This is my favourite option, in part because I love the smell of beeswax, but mainly because they work really well. They wrap around—and stick to—just about anything. In fact, I find them sturdier and stickier than plastic wrap, which tends to quickly lose its stick and fall off.
Beeswax wraps are perfect for things like veggies or cheese—items that dry out or turn brown if they don’t have a tight seal. They can also be folded into a pouch for bringing snacks to work or school. And while they seal out water and air, they are also breathable (unlike plastic), helping food stay fresh longer.
Katie Gamble, founder of Victoria, B.C-based business Nature Bee, tested out more than 20 iterations of beeswax wraps to find the perfect formula. Each of the ingredients has an important role to play.
Take jojoba oil. She likes it for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties, which help preserve food for longer. It also makes the wraps more pliable. “Without jojoba oil, beeswax wraps are hard to mould around bowls and your food,” says Gamble. “It needs to be the right amount of jojoba oil so they are malleable, but not so much that they are oily.”
She says tree resin is another key ingredient, as it has natural antibacterial properties that help prevent bacterial growth. It also makes the beeswax wraps nice and tacky, helping them stay put. “The pine tree resin balance is incredibly hard to find in a beeswax wrap formula,” says Gamble. “You want the right amount of resin so that it sits within the cotton and not in layers above the beeswax. The more you activate the pine tree resin (i.e. crumple your beeswax wrap), the stickier it becomes.”
Beeswax wraps aren’t cheap, but they will last around a year if you take good care of them. Wash them with cool, soapy water (hot water will cause the beeswax to degrade). Let them air dry in your drying rack, or just wipe them off with a towel. And once you’re done with them, you can toss them in the compost—they are made of entirely natural materials, so they are totally biodegradable.
What can you not use beeswax wraps for?
Because you can’t wash beeswax wraps with hot water, they shouldn’t be used for raw meat. And although you can put them in the freezer, their breathable nature may cause food to get freezer burnt.
There are many brands available, with variations in the size, type, and thickness of material used. (Plus, they come in a variety of cute designs.)
Abeego is a go-to brand for many zero-waste shoppers. Their beeswax wraps are made in Canada with beeswax, tree resin and jojoba oil infused into a hemp and organic cotton cloth. Abeego is also B Corp-certified, which means that they meet strict social and environmental standards.
Amy Hall, founder of Goldilocks Goods, started making beeswax wraps to eliminate plastic wrap. With a background in art history, she produces beeswax wraps in a range of patterns. She uses certified organic cotton, beeswax from B.C., jojoba oil from a farming co-op in Israel, and tree resin from native trees grown in Southeast Asia.
Nature Bee is a Canadian company located in Victoria, B.C. They source their beeswax from Country Bee Honey Farms, a five-minute drive from their facility. They use certified organic jojoba oil sourced from a family-run operation in Israel and food-safe pine tree resin sourced from a family business in Alabama that uses sustainable harvesting techniques to ensure every part of the tree is used.
Silicone food covers
Food-grade silicone is a non-toxic polymer made primarily from silica (sand). Unlike plastic, it doesn’t leach potentially harmful chemicals into food, especially when heated (i.e. microwaving leftovers.). It is also odour- and stain-resistant, hypoallergenic and easy to clean.
Silicone food covers are strong and stretchy, and they come in a range of sizes.These are a great complement (or alternative to) beeswax wraps, as silicone can withstand heating and freezing, and it’s dishwasher-safe.
There are many brands of silicone food covers on the market, some that are more rigid, and others that have more give.
These ultra stretchy food covers mould to the shape of bowls.The tabs make them easy to grip onto and stretch over various containers. They are dishwasher and microwave safe, and can withstand temperatures between 0 °C and 100 °C.
These silicone covers stretch up to twice their size to form a snug seal over containers of various shapes and sizes, as well as fruits and veggies.
While the products in this piece have been independently chosen, this article contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.
More ways to fight the climate crisis
- Talk to your friends, neighbours, relatives and colleagues about climate change
- Write your politicians
- Support a green charity
- Electrify your home heating
- Cut back on flying
- Decarbonize your hot water heating
- Canada’s big banks fund fossil fuels. Switch to a credit union
- Cut back on meat and dairy
- Get rid of natural gas in your home
- Ditch your gas stove for an induction stove
- Garden with native plants
- Cut back on food waste
- Buy secondhand