The Impact of Take-Away Packaging

Posted on: June 11, 2009 Posted by: Manin Oem Comments: 0

The Impact of Take-Away Packaging

We liked this post and have kept it around the PEPY office to remind us not to take Styrofoam take-out food when we could bike down the street and eat in a restaurant if we need to.  We had started to do this research last summer when we had an internal debate about which take away products were worse, worse-er, and by far the worst.  We found this listing and others and then also went out into the Cambodian expatriate restaurant scene and began to survey which popular delivery places were using which type of take-away products.  We had a vision of taking the piece to the local magazine and having an article posted about how “green” the pre-packaged lunches are at Blue Pumpkin (green color, and green as they are made from a local plant often used in thatching) and how others should follow suit.  Then, other “real” work took over, and we shelved the idea but continued to remain on the look out for positive changes in take-away packaging, which we are starting to see a lot of.  I guess Asia Life Magazine was following the changes too as they eventually did run a similar “who has green take-away packaging” post just this month!

This is a run down of the efficiency and impact of various packaging options created by the website chow.com (see original link here: https://www.chow.com/stories/10870). Some of these products relate to items which are not yet available in Cambodia, but we hope will be soon.

The rating system ranges from 5 (for good) to 1 (for bad).

1. Styrofoam (Rating: 1). Ubiquitous clamshells, soup containers, coffee cups.
All research shows that Styrofoam becomes a permanent part of our environment after we use it. Information on the health risks of styrene, which is used in the production of polystyrene plastics and resins, can be found on the EPA website.

2. Plastic (Rating: 2). Soup, salad, and yogurt containers; big soda cups; ice cream sundae dishes.
Plastic is made from petroleum, a resource in short supply. Plus, many of the chemicals used to produce plastic resins pose serious health risks. Recycling helps a little but there is still significant pollution in the production to consider.

You could try reducing the quantity of plastics being produced by reusing existing products, but you probably shouldn’t reuse these containers more than a few times. Potentially harmful chemical compounds have been shown to “migrate” from the plastic into your food, particularly if you’re microwaving the container.

3. Paper or Plastic Bags (Rating: 3). The grocery store, the market, the drugstore, your favorite takeout lunch joint.
Both are pretty environmentally unfriendly. A lot of technical information needs to be weighed when coming up with a definitive answer to which is greener, including recycling rates in your city and the pollution, waste, and energy used to create the bags. The best answer when asked “Paper or plastic?” is “I brought my own canvas bag.”

Like plastic containers, plastic bags can be reused as garbage bags or lunch bags, but may have similar consequences.

4. Cardboard Boxes (Rating: 3). Leftovers, takeaway salads.
The composting process for food-soiled paper products is more complicated than one might expect. A lot of paper products still contain chlorine or bleach, which can be harmful to the environment if it ends up in landfills. One should also be aware that more chemicals are emitted from the paper mills than from the paper itself.

Cardboard that has not been contaminated by food can be recycled along with other papers.

5. Bio-products (Rating: 3). Bio-plastics manufactured from starchy agricultural by-products; Bagasse plates made from plant fibres such as sugarcane-, wheat-, bamboo-, and rice-based pulps.
Most need special conditions and facilities to biodegrade or be composted and, like plastics, require energy and scarce resources to produce. When you mix bio-products in recycling systems, it creates a sorting nightmare and can leave entire batches of recyclable plastic useless. Many bio-products are made from genetically modified crops.

However, there is a vested consumer interest in seeing more alternatives to plastic, and better options are being introduced and adopted by restaurants at a rapid clip.  This is an emerging market with some products being significantly more eco-friendly than others, so it is unfair to generalise widely.

6. Aluminum Foil (Rating: 4). Wrapping for your burrito, naan, falafel, roasted corn on the cob.
It takes energy to extract and process the metal. And though aluminium is in abundant supply, no resource is infinite. Aluminum and its alloys can be melted and recast again and again. At home, you can wash and reuse foil. If aluminium makes it to the landfill, the metal eventually will oxidize, returning to aluminium oxide without the emission of gas or pollutants.

7. Recycled Paper Products (Rating: 4). Some cardboard boxes for salads and leftovers; some napkins and paper towels that come with your takeaway food.
There is no labelling process to let consumers know how much of a product is actually recycled material. Ideally, it’s made of 100% recycled paper, which means that no trees were cut down to make it; all the fibres came from recycled materials. Anything less than 100% means the un-recycled content came from virgin trees.

Making recycled paper requires fewer chemicals than making un-recycled paper. It also saves energy, uses less landfill space, saves trees, and reduces pollution in the water and air.

8. Edible Containers Made from Food (Rating: 5). The bread bowl your soup comes in, ice cream cones, tortilla bowls for taco salad.
An edible container may come on a paper plate or other disposable product, therefore negating the benefit of using food to hold food. If it’s the only thing that’s put in your hands, it eliminates a lot of waste. If you can’t finish it all, it can be composted.

9. Inedible Containers Made from Food (Rating: 5). Banana leaves holding your dim sum rice item or your Indian thali; the bamboo holding your rice.
As with the edible container, an extra plate or bowl may be given out for serving or transporting. They’re entirely compostable and non-polluting, and they can be used both to cook and to transport food.  Others can be cleaned and re-used without fear of contamination.

10. Bring Your Own (Rating: 5). Canvas bags at grocery stores, Mason jars at some microbreweries and tea salons, coffee mugs at the local java house, Tupperware at the salad bar.
There are few negatives. But to ensure cleanliness either the restaurant or customer must take responsibility for cleaning the item before use.