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 2

Last updated on May 21, 2023.

Plastic bottles and bags (trash) in a variety of clear, white, blue, yellow and greens together.
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.

“Industrially compostable (also known as commercially compostable) items are those that will likely not break down in your home compost, but will break down under specifically controlled temperatures and pressures designed to create compost at a large scale…If a plastic-resembling item is labeled ‘compostable,’ it is probably industrially compostable only.” -Eve O. Schaub, author of Year Of No Garbage2

Examples

Let’s look at four 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.”3 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.”4 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.”5

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.6 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.

“So let me make sure I understand this. I’m supposed to get my one-use, takeaway cup, and as the name indicates, I take it away. And then when I’m done I . . . bring it to the nearest industrial composting facility? Oh sure, I think there’s one of those at the mall in between the Hallmark Store and the movie theater.” -Eve O. Schaub, author of Year Of No Garbage7

World Centric products

World Centric brand cups.
World Centric brand cups. Photo by Marie Cullis.
World Centric brand spoons in package.
World Centric brand spoons. Photo by Marie Cullis.

This seems like a great company: they are a Certified B company, they donate 25% of their profits, and they participate in carbon offsets. Their products, “Made from plants, not petroleum,” are made from renewable plants. Specifically, the spoons are made from 70% non-GMO corn and 30% talc. While this is technically better for the environment, these are still single-use disposable items that are only compostable in a “commercial composting facility.” The likelihood that these products will make it into a commercial composting facility after their single use is low. If they go to the landfill, they will likely not break down at all. At least this company isn’t using fossil fuels to make its products.

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 at 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: