Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 4

Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays.
Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays. Note that some supermarkets, such as Whole Foods (and Earthfare before it closed) have moved away from most, if not all, polystyrene food packaging. But polystyrene still abounds in other supermarkets including Walmart, ALDI, Publix, Food City, and many others. Image by Karamo from Pixabay

In my last three articles, I’ve explored the various aspects of polystyrene and its harmful effects on human health, wildlife, and the environment. Hopefully, by now, you’re no longer reheating your leftovers in those containers. Maybe you’ve even requested that your favorite restaurant stop using them!

It is not practical to recycle polystyrene, although producers of it would have you believe otherwise. Today, I want to look at alternatives to polystyrene food containers and explore other ideas for dealing with this toxic material and waste problem it creates. Unfortunately, the alternatives all fall short.

Photo of a girl eating ice cream out of a polystyrene cup
Photo by Dan Gaken on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alternatives to polystyrene

There are many alternatives for take-out food packaging including several ideas that have not been put into practice yet. Many alternatives are no better than polystyrene. In fact, many food packaging companies make false or misleading claims often omitting names of chemicals in their products. Let’s look at some of those now.

Plastic film linings

Plastic film-lined paperboard, such as the standard paper coffee cups, cannot be recycled because of the mixed materials. They also cannot be composted because of the plastic film. Some companies use PLA, which can be – but is not always – a biodegradable plastic film. Cups and containers lined with PLA would have to first be collected and taken to an industrial compost facility, which as you’ll recall from Part 2 of my Packaging Series, these facilities are few and far between. There are a few companies that now advertise these as backyard compostable, which is great if it is true and it is free of toxins. But this would require collecting the PLA-lined containers or cups instead of trashing them.

Plastics #1 and #2

Using #1 and #2 plastics are better in that they are much more recyclable than #6 (polystyrene), but this assumes the items make it into the recycling. I know that many fast-food restaurants use recyclable plastics, but do not provide recycling receptacles at their locations. This forces any customer wishing to recycle to take those items home. Also, the volume of throw-away items negates its positive possibilities. We must move away from plastics and our reliance on single-use disposable items.

“Compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene

In Part 2 of my Packaging Series, I wrote about “compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene and plastics that are really neither, as they do not break down in regular compost, nor in the marine environment. These types of polystyrene require an industrial composting facility which, as mentioned above, is not available in many places. A food service using these types of containers would have to separately collect them and ship them to a facility far away. But realistically, many of these end up in the landfill. And nothing biodegrades in a landfill. Backyard compostable plastic has started appearing on the market, but I don’t know if these are truly biodegradable and toxin-free.

Molded fiber containers

Molded fiber take-out packaging seemed like a great alternative to plastic until it was discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). This chemical causes cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children. They are the same compounds in some nonstick cookware. Worse, manufacturers advertise many of these containers as compostable. But if PFOAs get into your soil, they will also grow into your plants, as these chemicals do not dissolve or disappear. Stay away from anything containing PFOAs (also PFAs). I’ve linked an article under Additional Resources for more information on this.

Large Scale Changes

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had access to composting through municipal systems and all take-out packaging was made from real compostable products that also did not contain toxic chemicals? This would take a large-scale change to our waste management systems, but it would really change the world and make a global difference in our climate, environment, and health. Just think about how much waste we could keep out of landfills by composting food waste and food containers!

Sustainable fast food packaging idea
Sustainable fast food packaging idea by Ian Gilley of IG Design Solutions, made from biodegradable compressed paper. We need more innovations like this!

ReThink Disposable

ReThink Disposable, a program of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, tries to prevent waste before it starts. They advocate for reusable food container solutions (I’ve listed their guide under Additional Resources). They work with local jurisdictions, businesses, and consumers of take-out food packaging “to inspire a cultural shift away from the single-use “throwaway” lifestyle.” ReThink Disposable indicates that “the best way to champion our movement is by supporting ReThink Disposable businesses who eliminate and reduce disposable packaging.”1 While this program is only in California right now, we can do this and we all have the power to follow the same guidelines and practices. The organization offers multiple case studies on California businesses, including an entire school district, that switched from disposables to reusables.

Disposable cup infographic poster from ReThink Disposable

Solution

While there are many alternatives to polystyrene, none of them will have as significant an impact as simply not using single-use disposable products. Giving up these products doesn’t mean we have to be inconvenienced, it just means we have to prepare a bit more. Stopping the flow of single-use disposables just takes a little forward-thinking and intentionality, because the best solution will always be to stop using single-use disposable products. Check out my page on “11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food” for ideas! Once you stop using disposables, you’ll be surprised at how little you miss them.

As a society, we’re going to have to think outside of the box on this one. What about take-out places that allow people to bring their own glass or metal containers and drink cups? What about having a standardized exchange system? Restaurants could invest in reusable containers that customers could return for a small deposit, similar to a container deposit system. Once returned they either receive money back, credit, or their next container at no cost.

In my next and final article in this short series, I’ll explore the role of companies and municipal bans on polystyrene. If you have ideas on how to end the use of polystyrene or single-use disposable take-out containers, please let me know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Compostable plastics: are they PLAying you?” Aubrey Hills, Student Environmental Resource Center, University of California, Berkeley, March 10, 2017.

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, thecounter.org, August 5, 2019.

Guide, “Reusable Food Serviceware Guide,” ReThink Disposable and Clean Water Fund, 2015.

Footnote:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 3

Last updated on February 13, 2022.

Image of a green earth with green recycling arrows
Image by annca on Pixabay

In my first article, I introduced the topic of packaging – its history, the current problems with packaging, and I introduced greenwashing. In my second article, I wrote about the terms biodegradable and compostable, and how those terms are often misused. Now we will explore bioplastics.

Bioplastics

Bioplastics are used in packaging which is then marketed as sustainable, and even as biodegradable. “Most biodegradable and compostable plastics are bioplastics, made from plants rather than fossil fuels.” Mike Manna of Organic Recycling Solutions explained just that in his appropriately titled essay, “The Myth of Biodegradability” in The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular.

But biodegradability hinges on two key factors. First, raw materials used in bioplastics are more sustainably sourced than petroleum-based plastic. “Many bioplastics are not 100 percent made of natural biomass. To be called a bioplastic, they generally have to be at least 20 percent derived from natural sources. What about the other 80 percent? Excellent question. Many bioplastics contain fossil fuel-based plastic resins and numerous synthetic additives – such as fillers, softeners and flame retardants – just like conventional plastics.”1

Green plastic bottle
Image by Foulon Richard from Pixabay

The second key factor is there would be less concern about pollution since these items would naturally degrade. But that is not how it works. “The latter factor, however, has mobilized a torrent of misinformation, misplaced optimism, consumer confusion, and headaches for recyclers and composters alike,” Manna wrote. They must be sent to an industrial compost facility to break down. As you know from my previous article, these facilities are few and far between. So bioplastics that require industrial composters are far from guaranteed to make it to one. Biodegradable plastics that do make it to an industrial compost facility will not create usable soil. It lacks the macro and micronutrients of regular compost. “It just doesn’t make environmental sense to take a plant, turn that pant into a highly refined petrochemical, only to then use it once and have it turn into something effectively worse than soil,” wrote Manna.

Bioplastics are made of either polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), both of which are #7 plastics. These cannot be recycled and therefore contaminate single-stream recycling systems, making entire loads of recycling unrecyclable. In many ways, bioplastics are worse for single-use disposable items than traditional fossil fuel plastics. 

“Often omitted is the amount of energy that goes into, and the negative effects related to, the growing, harvesting, and transportation of bioplastics. Also, in a world full of hungry people, do we really want to be pushing agricultural lands into production of plastics rather than food?” -Michael SanClements, author of Plastic Purge2

Plastic bottles floating in water
Bioplastics will not break down in nature or water. Image by Foulon Richard from Pixabay

“Sadly, bioplastics do not present a solution for plastic soup or for reducing plastic litter.” -Michiel Roscam Abbing3

Renewable Sources?

Bioplastics are plastics made from natural, renewable sources, such as corn, sugar cane, or potatoes. “The thought is that plastics made with plants, as opposed to fossil fuels, will sustain the unstoppable trajectory of the world’s consumption with a more sustainable material,” Manna wrote. But bioplastics only have to be composed of as little as 20 percent of renewable material to be marketed (or greenwashed) as such, and can still contain a majority of fossil fuel-based plastic.4

Most importantly, renewable sources have to be grown and produced, and agriculture requires a ton of energy. “The corn that is used to make the bio-plastics is not organic,” so there are a lot of pesticides used. “The end result is that valuable agricultural land was used to create something that just gets thrown away,” said Céline Jennison, the founder of Plastic Tides.5

“As of now, turning plants into plastic remains more energy-intensive than recycling used plastic.”6

Corn is a crop used to supplement lots of resources such as gasoline (ethanol), agricultural feed, paper goods, and now plastics. While corn is not a fossil fuel, critics of it suggest that corn creates more problems by contributing to global warming, chemical pollution, and energy waste. It demands more nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides than other crops, and which are made from natural gas and oil. “Runoff from these chemicals finds its way into the groundwater and, in the Midwestern corn belt, into the Mississippi River, which carries it to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has already killed off marine life in a 12,000-square-mile area,” wrote author Michael Pollan.7

 “America’s corn crop might look like a sustainable, solar-powered system for producing food, but it is actually a huge, inefficient, polluting machine that guzzles fossil fuel—a half a gallon of it for every bushel.” -Michael Pollan

Cornfield
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Corn is hardly sustainable, not the way it’s grown in this country. Farmed at an industrial scale, corn requires vast amounts of herbicides and fertilizer. With heavy rain, these inputs run into waterways and pollute drinking water.” -Elizabeth Royte8

Example: Coca-Cola Plant Bottle

Coca-Cola plantbottle advertisement
Coca-Cola introduced the PlantBottle in 2009.

“We replaced up to 30% of the petroleum used to make PET plastic bottles with material from sugar canes and other plants. The result? You’d have to take nearly 1 million vehicles off the road to achieve the same reduction in CO2 emissions that PlantBottle™ has achieved since 2009.”9

These claims are questionable. Supposedly, this particular alternative to traditional PET (#1) plastic can be recycled with regular PET plastics. However, how much petroleum does it take to produce sugarcane? As for the CO2 reduction, how did they come up with this calculation?

Empty Coca-Cola bottle lying on the beach
Photo by Maria Mendiola on Unsplash

The company has vowed to “use at least 50% recycled material in our packaging by 2030.”10 Why haven’t they been doing this all along? Coca-Cola released an advertisement about a “Coke Bottle Made With Plastic From The Sea,” which was made with plastics picked up by volunteers on beaches on the Mediterranean Sea.11 Volunteers who used their free time to pick up trash on beaches because it’s the right thing to do. Coca-Cola easily has enough money to pay employees to do the same thing. A true solution would be to stop pollution by eliminating this type of packaging.

What about other real solutions, like reverting back to glass bottles? We know that glass is 100% recyclable and does not leach toxins and chemicals. Glass can also be managed through a container deposit system, and can truly be a part of a circular economy.

Example: Procter & Gamble

Advertisement for Head and Shoulders bottle made from recycled beach plastic

Procter & Gamble designed a shampoo bottle using recycled beach plastic. They partnered with TerraCycle and SUEZ, a waste management firm. Again, it was using volunteer labor for the collection of plastic polluting beaches. “Sourced through partnerships with beach cleanup organizations already picking up litter on the shores of oceans and other waterways, ocean plastic originally headed for landfills was used to establish a new supply chain,” wrote Virginie Helias at Procter & Gamble. But ‘plastic originally headed for landfills’ is misleading. Much of this plastic had likely already been sent to the landfill or recycling center before and then ended up in the ocean anyway! “Ocean plastic products are seen by many as a distraction that takes attention and resources away from source reduction, while only cleaning up a tiny fraction of ocean plastic,” wrote Jennie Romer, lawyer and sustainability expert.12

Procter & Gamble’s goal is to make 100% of its packaging recyclable and reusable by 2030. While this is a respectable goal, it should focus on reusable packaging since recycling is not the answer. If we stop the disposable stream at the source, that would be far more impactful than all of the recycling systems combined. P&G can do better and have the resources to do much more.

Are there other solutions?

“The key takeaway about bioplastics: They are NOT the solution to plastic pollution and toxicity problems. They will likely play a role, but given their mixed character and the chemical additives most of them contain, relying on them is not a replacement for making a concerted effort to reduce all plastic use at the source.” –Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha13

Plastic substitutes are not the answer, just as synthetic biodegradable materials and recycling are not the answers. We also cannot possibly recycle all the plastic away at this point. We know that only 9% of plastic sent to recycling facilities is recycled.

But there are other packaging innovations out there. We’ll explore those in my next post, Part 4. Please subscribe and share, and thanks for reading!

 

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional Resources:

Article, “What you need to know about plant-based plastics,” by Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic, November 15, 2018.

Post, “The Truth & Consequences of Bioplastics,” EcoLunchbox.com, accessed July 5, 2021.

Article, “Why biodegradables won’t solve the plastic crisis,” by Kelly Oakes, BBC Future, November 5, 2019.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 2

Last updated on September 9, 2021.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

In my last article, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this article, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

But misleading marketing makes us believe that biodegradable plastics are better. “According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, it is deceptive to market a product as biodegradable if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal, so items that are customarily disposed of in landfills cannot be marketed as ‘biodegradable in landfills.'”1 Regardless, the term is often misused.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system. But commercial composting facilities don’t all accept even certified compostable plastic products because the chemicals in the plastic hurt the final value of the compost.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so many items go to the landfill.

Examples

Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claims drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.”2 What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility, in the facility adds moisture to assist with breakdown.

Most people toss these cups into the regular trash, which then goes to landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. When marine life ingests those toxins, they make their way up through the food chain to us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.”3 I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

BASF used Ecovio film applications to make organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”4

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities.5 Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

A person holding 'compostable' plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York.
‘Compostable’ plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York. Don’t buy these! Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, protect the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. The same compounds are in most nonstick cookware. They cause cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

Though marketed as compostable, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make it into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

In my next article about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional Resources:

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, TheCounter.org, August 5, 2019. Read this excellent article for more information on molded fiber food containers.

Article, “The breakdown of biodegradable plastic, broken down,” by Sarah DeWeerdt, Anthropocene Magazine, May 7, 2019.

Article, “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” by Adele Peters, fastcompany.com, September 3, 2019.

Footnotes: