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
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.
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.
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.