Just what do Styrofoam, molded-pulp, polypropylene, compostable, biodegradable and recyclable mean anyway?

Are you considering an alternative to your Styrofoam food trays, but confused as to what the differences are among the various options?  If so, you’re not alone!  So, we’ve decided to answer the most frequently asked questions we receive – in the order we usually receive them.

What’s wrong with Styrofoam (polystyrene)?

The environmental impact

The health impacts

For use as a meat tray, Styrofoam is inexpensive – yet the tray bowties easily and does not have the structural strength of alternatives.  Using Styrofoam results in a high shrink rate and impacts customer satisfaction due to cracking at the processor and breaking at the customer level.  One dropped tray holding three lbs. of meat, due to a tray’s breaking while holding it from a side, could financially equate to the loss of 70 trays.  Also, it’s very difficult to rework Styrofoam trays when you have a film or a meat styling problem, so they just get thrown away.  When you consider the total cost of ownership of Styrofoam, it is not as inexpensive as you may believe.

You can’t recycle foam food containers, here’s why

Why can’t you recycle polystyrene foam coffee cups, egg cartons and takeout containers? The little recycle symbol on those items —which you probably think of as Styrofoam — might lead you to believe you can toss them in the curbside bin. Yet, such items “have no local recycling option and should be placed in your trash,” says Monroe County’s recycling website.

Basically, it’s because nobody wants to buy recycled foam food containers. At least not at a price that makes financial sense for recycling companies. Recycling may have many environmental benefits, but it’s driven by economics. You can make big bucks selling recycled plastics, metals and papers. Expanded polystyrene foam, not so much.

Recyclers condense recyclable materials into bales that are then sold by weight. The polystyrene foam used in these items is about 95 percent air, which makes transporting it very expensive. The economics are difficult and even the environmental impacts of transporting a truckload of lightweight polystyrene could be questionable and most waste management experts accept this decision.

Clean packaging foam can be recycled but Polystyrene Foam that is used for food items (picture a raw hamburger meat tray) often has residue or scraps that contaminate the product. It is not wanted by any recycling company.

A lack of recycling options means that billions of single use foam food items end up in landfills or as litter each year. They pollute waterways and cause trouble for wildlife that consume them. And it is unknown how long all this material will take to biodegrade. Some scientists say hundreds of years and others estimate much longer. In the worst-case scenario, that plate or cup you used once, for five minutes, could be around essentially forever.

Which is more eco-friendly: compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable?

OK, so that was the easy part — it’s obvious that polystyrene has a negative impact on the environment and our health.  But which is the best alternative?  This is where it gets a little tricky; so, let’s take a closer look at each one.

Biodegradable Plastics

Ah, it’s biodegradable, so it has to be good, right?  Not so fast.  Biodegradable. means that it will degrade without the presence of oxygen, becoming water, CO2 and biomass.  HOWEVER, there is no time frame designated as to when this process needs to occur for it to be deemed biodegradable.

In addition, biodegradable plastics do not degrade under normal conditions.  In fact, they must be subjected to high temperatures for a long period of time to decompose.  Therefore, they do not decompose in the ocean and should be sent to large municipal composters; however, such facilities are few and far between, which is why there is little-to-no curbside service that will collect them.  And, believe it or not, biodegradable plastic is not recyclable and, if it mixes with standard plastic, the entire recycling feed will be compromised.

Comparable resins (bioplastics), made out of corn and starch, are not any better.Your parents likely told you not to throw away your food.  Well, they were wise.  In short, throwing away such packaging drives the price of food through the roof, significantly impacting the world’s poor.  Growing corn for bioplastics means there is less land to grow corn for food – by some estimates 25% less.  In addition, corn is a huge feed crop for chickens and cows, costing farmers more money — and that cost is passed to consumers.  Corn also depletes the soil of all its nutrients every season, so farmers have to wait two years before replanting it in the same field. Therefore, biodegradable does not necessarily equate to sustainable.

Interestingly, California  has declared it’s against the law to include the words “biodegradable” and “compostable” on the label of a plastic product or a product with plastic packaging.  In addition, Walmart was recently forced to pay nearly $1M to settle a lawsuit labeling plastic bottles as biodegradable.

Compostable Plastics

Let’s move on to compostable.  Compostablemeans that products will decompose into CO2, biomass and water in roughly 90 days, similar to paper products.  Sounds fantastic in theory, but they need more energy to produce them, and they require oxygen to degrade; therefore, burying them in a landfill will not work effectively.  They are generally not taken curbside and generally require a high-heat commercial compost facility, which again is not readily available, to decompose.  Just ask the residents of Portlandand other cities that have actually banned compostable plastics from their compostable facilities, and they will likely tell you their desire to be eco-friendly died on the vine.

Compostable Virgin Wood Fiber 

What about wood fiber products?  Well, first consideration is global deforestation, which impacts the environment.  In addition, these packages use bonding agents (adhesives) to hold the slurry fibers together and assist with moisture; therefore, they are conventionally lined with thin polymer film (PE). This type of tray requires a combination of adhesives, oil-based polymers, and cellulose (wood fiber) in order for the film to adhere to the fiber.  The Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF), which handle recycling, cannot separate the film (which is recyclable) from the fiber (which is not recyclable). 

 And the composting facility, which is generally required for the fiber portion of the tray to degrade, cannot separate the paper side (which is compostable) from the film (which is not compostable).  The result: you now have a package that cannot be composted, biodegraded, or recycled.

Compostable materials are generally less durable, making them less desirable for food trays, which have to endure production machinery, transportation, and moisture.  They also cannot be produced in a clear color, which studies have proven is preferred by Millennials (soon to be the largest working / living population).

Recyclable and Molded Pulp Fiber

So, where does that leave us?  It leaves us with recycling and bamboo/wheat straw and sugarcane fiber packaging alternatives.  Recycling converts the plastic into a reusable material.  It requires less energy than the alternatives and minimizes landfill waste and ocean pollution.  It also conserves natural resources, such as food, trees, and soil, etc. 

Sure, recycling is dependent upon the individual to recycle, but so are the other options in order to be effective.  However, recycling is more easily accomplished, especially since consumers are readily familiar with simply throwing an item into a single-stream recycling bin.

In addition, recycling is a closed loop system.  If consumers buy a PET recyclable tray, not only are the recycling companies going to recycle the tray because of its value, but the industry will also recycle their industrial scrap PET and sell it on the open market or reuse the scrap directly back into their PET trays. The only problem with recycling is that, first of all just small quantity of plastic used in the world is actually recycled and secondly food-contact plastic containers such as those used by fast-food restaurants and groceries stores are not accepted by recycling companies because they appear soiled with food crumps and dirty oil. 

As trendsetters such as Walmart have shown, working with suppliers to create sustainable packaging is vital for retailers and manufacturers looking to satisfy consumer demands, sustainability, storage, and disposal costs, as well as promote their concern for the environment to consumers. The issue of disposal difficulties with many non-renewable materials has only served to heighten interest in this field and accelerate adoption of sustainable packaging.

With sustainability as their mantra, packaging developers are expanding the possibilities available with bamboo/wheat straw/ sugarcane molded fiber packaging applications. As a result, more retailers, manufacturers, and consumers in markets are adopting sustainable molded fiber packaging. Today, molded fiber’s packaging capabilities range from vegetable trays, clamshell boxes, mushroom tills and retail packaging for cosmetics to protective packs for jarred candles, cushions for computers, and inserts for mobile phones.

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