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3 Sustainable Alternatives to Polystyrene


By Anuradha Wadhwani

As the campaign to ban polystyrene packaging snowballs across the world, that foam takeout box will likely become a relic soon. Or maybe not, because even five centuries from now, the foam containers we dispose of today will still be intact in some landfill. Compare that to eco-disposables which end up as compost—and not in overflowing landfills—and you know why it is high time both consumers and businesses took polystyrene alternatives seriously.

Even as the polystyrene foam toxicity debate roils environmental circles and restaurant associations alike, local governments have slowly begun to stamp out the material. From New York in the United States to Fujairah in the UAE and Paris in France, the change is already visible.

As things stand today, a much wider ban seems imminent – and welcome. As we phase out a once ubiquitous product, it’s time we started considering sustainable substitutes.

Here are three renewable alternatives that could seamlessly replace polystyrene containers

Compostable packaging: Diverting waste from landfills to the compost pit

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans trash an estimated 25 billion polystyrene foam cups each year. Compostable foodservice packaging is arguably the biggest trend in the industry right now because it’s an alternative that ‘ecologically-correct’ consumers love. Why? Because compostable containers are made using corn starch, palm fiber, peat fiber and even wheat stocks, and they break down into soil-conditioning compost. This, juxtaposed against the fact that more communities across the world are now compost-ready, certainly tells us that the time is right for businesses and restaurants to switch from polystyrene foam containers to compostable alternatives.

Already, a number of brands worldwide have shown how compostable containers can be used as a practical alternative. Earlier this year, in response to a citywide ban, Dunkin’ Donuts stopped using its signature polystyrene cups at all New York City locations; and several years ago, coffee retailer Tully’s began serving its popular beverages in compostable cups.

The flip side: While it's easy to find compostable and biodegradable alternatives to all varieties of polystyrene foam containers, many of these materials are still being tested for their heat resistance and degree of biodegradability. Pricing is yet another aspect that needs careful evaluation, especially in the context of the average enterprise. Most importantly, if compostable plastics end up in landfills instead of compost bins, the entire purpose is lost (and that's assuming they're truly compostable in the first place). This evidently calls for the retooling of compost collection systems and refinement of bioplastics technology.

Reusable containers and mugs: Time to go back to the basics?

While compostable containers may be touted as an earth-friendly alternative by many, critics complain that, at the end of the day, we’re still using a disposable item that will ultimately burden waste disposal systems. An ideal solution being proposed by some activists in the green brigade is the use of reusable containers – products that don’t find their way into landfills every morning. These reusable containers don’t have to be anything like the regular polystyrene containers that we’re used to. They could be made of ceramics, stainless steel or high-quality plastics.

For instance, the Manchester Christmas market in the U.K. introduced a reuse scheme for mugs and glasses in 2008, which helped prevent hundreds of tons of waste from reaching landfills. The idea is simple: A customer is required to pay a nominal refundable deposit for a glass or mug, or they can choose to buy it as a keepsake. On similar lines, several restaurants in Germany have been serving takeouts in reusable containers against a deposit, which is refunded when customers return the containers. Academic institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Cincinnati are known to use reusable containers in their cafés and dining halls. The container reuse model, besides being replicable, is malleable enough to be customized to the needs of any unit adopting it.

The flip side: For all the talk of reusable containers having a zero impact on the environment, some just ask this one question: What about the carbon footprint of driving to a restaurant and back to simply return a reusable container? And there are others who wonder whether sustainability should come entirely at the cost of convenience in the contemporary world.

Edible containers: Food packaged in food

Earlier this year, KFC announced that it would start selling coffee in edible edible 'Scoffee’ cups in the U.K. Considering that the move comes from one of the largest restaurant chains in the world, it’s unlikely that the company chanced upon the idea. The trend of edible containers or ‘food packaged in food’ is real and could change the way we consume products, literally. A number of innovators are already on the course to commercial success via their edible container ventures.

A method called WikiCells, pioneered by Harvard professor David Edwards, for instance, uses edible gelatinous skin for packaging food products. Loliware, a brand that specializes in edible cups (which, by the way, come in some delightful colors and textures), hopes to make that unsightly pile of disposable cups at parties and offices a thing of the past. From frozen yogurt in an edible skin, to orange juice in a membrane with the same flavor, to baked goods served in a bread-based edible box, the possibilities are endless.

The flip side: Edible containers could potentially free up our landfills, but they do have their set of limitations. Going by the price tags of edible tableware and food containers available on the market, they’re just shy of being a luxury product. And, given that most edible packaging is also hygroscopic and perishable, it carries a massive logistical disadvantage.

Image credit: Transparency Market Research

Having extensively worked as a journalist with leading national dailies in India, Anuradha Wadhwani now writes for Transparency Market Research, a U.S.-based market intelligence firm. Anuradha is passionate about tracking trends across areas such as sustainability, innovative materials and chemicals.

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