Food

Why Reusable Takeout Packaging is the Future

Better for the Planet, Our Health, and the Economy

As a long-time plastic and waste reduction advocate, I've had a hard time ordering take-out or delivery. It's not just the waste that bothers me when I see single-use food packaging, it's knowing that things used for a matter of minutes and then thrown away represents all kinds of threats not only to the environment, but also to our health and businesses' bottom line.

Then COVID-19 happened – and caused a dramatic increase in the consumption of single-use plastics from PPEs and food packaging. Since the pandemic began, U.S. online shopping and take-out orders have increased 78% – the highest reported increase in the world. However, oddly enough, the number of reusable and returnable cup and container options has – luckily! – been growing.

This growth in reuse systems is evident in cities across the U.S.. For example, in my hometown of San Francisco, in the last year it became possible for me to order take-out in reusable containers from several of my favorite Bay Area restaurants through Dispatch Goods, either directly from the restaurant or through Doordash. When visiting family in NYC, I can get lovely salads to go from Just Salad – and Deliver Zero is partnering with a number of restaurants in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village. And while my family in Durham N.C. are divided by the Tar Heels and Blue Devils rivalry, they all agree that ordering take-out in reusable containers from restaurants that partner with Durham Green to Go is much better than the throw-away option. And thankfully, I can now get a coffee to-go in a reusable mug in many cities, like when I visit my brother in Boston, where Usefull recently launched.

At UPSTREAM, we are tracking the growth of reuse in cities all across the country. It's possible to borrow a reusable cup or container in a variety of on deposit or lending programs. Even groceries and consumer products are being offered in returnable/refillable containers thanks to many emerging reuse companies. The concomitant growth in reusable and refillable return systems gives me hope that the throw away culture is changing.

Why Single-use Packaging is Not Good for the Environment

Since the birth of the throw-away culture in the 1960s, single-use food packaging has largely replaced reusable and refillable packaging in the U.S., and it is rapidly increasing across the globe. Taking another first place, the U.S. is also the biggest generator of packaging waste – 82.2 million metric tons (mt) in 2018- equivalent to 514 billion cars. Efforts to find "sustainable packaging" materials to feed the throw away economy are challenging since each comes with regrettable consequences.

Paper products, like napkins, plates, and food containers are filling overflowing garbage cans. These products come from oxygen-producing, carbon-capturing trees – our first defense in the climate crisis. Cutting them down means habitat loss and increasing species extinction, increasing water pollution, and worse air quality.

Aluminum is quickly becoming the material of choice because it is highly recyclable. But with the average recycled content of a can at 73% a fair amount of virgin material is still being used. The mining and transformation of raw bauxite into aluminum is energy intensive and releases perfluorocarbons that are 9,200 times more harmful than CO2 in global warming impacts.

Plastic is not a great choice, either. It's highly littered and hardly recyclable. One truckload per minute of plastic enters the ocean. Throughout its lifecycle, from the extraction of hydrocarbons through the processing to ultimate disposal, plastics are energy intensive, polluting, health-harming, and contribute to climate change. Roughly two-thirds of all plastic produced has been released to the environment and remains there causing harm. And it turns out that the U.S. is the biggest plastic waste generator and polluter in the world.

For years, communities have struggled to find alternatives to plastic that are better for the environment, but this quest has proven elusive. They are learning the hard way that "recyclable" foodware doesn't really get recycled. We've paid for recycling for years while our dirty paper and plastic got exported to become pollution in other countries – or it gets collected in the recycling bin only to end up in local landfills or incinerators where it pollutes our communities.

Compostable packaging some believe to be the sustainable panacea. But compostables are not really working well in the waste stream. Bioplastic compostable products, like cups and bags, get mixed up with and contaminate recycling. Only products certified to be compostable (bearing 3rd party labeling) are designed to degrade in commercial compost although many people mistake plant-based products with those designed for compost. Commercial composters largely don't want plastics made from plants, even the ones that are certified to meet lab standards for compostability, because they don't degrade quickly enough outside the lab and contaminate the compost. So too does paper and fiberware that is coated with forever-polluting PFAS chemicals. All packaging, even if it degrades in compost, dilutes the quality of the compost because it adds no nutrient value. Composters mostly want food and yard waste. Some accept technically compostable food packaging due to pressure from cities that are looking to divert waste from landfill. But they end up with piles of less valuable, dirty compost.

Reusable packaging: a win for the planet

Life cycle analysis – the footprint of a product through its lifetime, from production to disposal – generally views environmental impacts through as many as 14 categories, like raw materials extraction, manufacturing and transportation impacts, greenhouse gas and climate impacts, water and energy consumption, aquatic toxicity, and disposal related impacts. Through any of these measures, reusable products ultimately out-perform the disposable options.

Based on UPSTREAM's review of the life cycle analysis of reusable versus disposable take-out foodware, reusables are better for the environment after just a minimal number of uses:

  • Cups, plates and bowls: after 10-50 uses
  • Clamshells: after 15-20 uses
  • Utensils: after 2-4 uses

Reuse is Better for our Health – Especially Without Plastic

Many people want to eliminate plastic because of the impacts to our oceans and upsetting scenes of plastics' harm to turtles and whales. But a more personal impact comes from the health threats associated with plastics and chemicals in food packaging. The harm, including lowered fertility rates for men and women, developmental and neurological impairment, and elevated cancers and other chronic diseases, is harder to see and much widely recognized. That's why UPSTREAM is collaborating with Zero Waste Europe and GAIA in the UNWRAPPED project to share a Call to Action about the risks of plastics and chemicals in food packaging:

Non-plastic reusables are not only better for the environment, they are also safer for human health. When made from glass, stainless steel, and ceramic, the main package is inert. The threat of chemicals or microplastics migrating into the food or beverages we consume is far lower with non-plastic reusables.

Reusables Are Also Better for the Economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that a 20% shift to reusables presents a $10 billion dollar business savings. On the ground, programs like ReThink Disposable are providing this case. The program had over 160 food service businesses participate, and they found that every single one saved money by switching to some reusables in their operations – on average between $3,000- $22,000 per year.

Switching to reuse for take-out also reduces litter which will in turn save taxpayer dollars. More than $11.5 billion is spent every year in the U.S. to clean up litter on the streets, in storm drains and in rivers, and the most common objects found during beach and street litter clean-ups are food and beverage packaging.

Reuse also creates good local jobs. According to EcoCycle, there are 30 times more job opportunities with reuse than in landfilling and incinerating our waste.

Reduce is Also a Win

At UPSTREAM, we're working to get laws enacted that pave the way both for reducing and reusing. To reduce single-use in food service, we've launched the Skip the Stuff campaign which would require restaurants and online ordering apps to ask first before including the straws, utensils, condiment packets, and napkins that most of us already have at home or at the office.

So when you choose to Skip the Stuff, or you participate in a reusable cup or container program for your next take-out meal or beverage, you can feel good knowing that choosing to reduce and reuse is safer for our health, better for the planet, and saves business money. That's a real win!

How to Become a Reuse Solutioneer

People can spend their entire days and weeks trying to live a plastic-free lifestyle, but most of us don't have that kind of time. The problem is that we don't have a lot of choices in how the things we want to buy and use are packaged. The real solutions come from driving systems change by putting pressure on companies to offer us the products we want without the throw-away packaging.

You can drive change by supporting businesses that are doing things right. Here are some ways to support reuse businesses:

  • Call on restaurants to Reopen with Reuse: add your name to the statement asking our beloved restaurants to reopen with nontoxic reuse.
  • Find reuse businesses in your area and support them.
  • Support restaurants that serve on real plates, cups, and dishes.
  • Opt out of unnecessary accessories like disposable silverware and straws when you order take-out - #SkiptheStuff.

You can also take action now to get policies enacted that require packaging to be less toxic and more reusable.


Resources

1. Parashar, N, Hait, S. (2021, Plastics in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic: Protector or polluter? Sci of the Total Env 759/144274.

2. Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data

3. The New Plastics Economy Rethinking the future of plastics

4. THE HIDDEN COSTS OF A PLASTIC PLANET

5. The United States' contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean

We all want our homes to be a safe haven for ourselves and the ones we love.

The single easiest thing you can do for a safer home is to take your shoes off at the door. If you're already doing it, congratulations! If you're not, you can start today and science shows it makes a difference!

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Roundups

Non-Toxic Target College Dorm Picks

Everything you need to make a dorm feel like home!

Starting college is so exciting for so many reasons! A new school, new friends, and new adventures are just a few weeks away. If you're going to be living in a dorm room, you've probably already started thinking about decor and living essentials. That's why we picked out some of our favorite non-toxic dorm room essentials from Target! Our picks are made from safe materials like glass, stainless steel, and organic cotton. Each cotton item is also made with OEKO-TEX guidelines, which means it's been independently tested and certified against a list of over 350 harmful chemicals.


Organic Cotton Sheet Set

Getting a good night's sleep is a crucial part of any school routine. These 400 thread count cotton sheets will have you catching ZZZs in no time! We love that they're pill and shrink resistant, and made to strict Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX guidelines.

Organic Bath Towel

This soft, organic cotton bath towel is Made in Green by OEKO-TEX and will help any dorm shower feel a little more like home.

Chunky Knit Bed Blanket

This chunky knit blanket will add some serious cozy vibes to any dorm room! It's Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX® certified and comes in a ton of cute colors.

Seventh Generation Easy Dose Laundry Detergent

This ultra-concentrated laundry detergent will keep your clothes fresh and clean without harmful chemicals found in traditional laundry detergents.

Biokleen Stain and Odor Remover

If you're a workout aficionado with lots of athletic clothes, or if you just have a neglected pile of dirty clothes in the corner of your room, this stain and odor remover is perfect for you. It gets rid of those tough, lingering odors safely and naturally without the use of harsh chemicals.

Everspring Dryer Balls

Dryer sheets can be full of harsh chemicals, which is why we love wool dryer balls instead! These dryer balls will keep your clothes static free!

Grove Co. Multi-Purpose Cleaner Concentrates

Even a dorm room needs some TLC every now and then! Clean hard surfaces with this multi-surface cleaner from Grove Co. This streak-free cleaner will effectively remove dirt, grime, and residue leftover from that late night study session or post-finals party.

Lysol Power and Free Multi-Purpose Citrus Sparkle Cleaner Spray

Sometimes you needed a heavy-duty cleaner. We get it. That's why this Lysol hydrogen peroxide all-purpose cleaner is perfect for life's bigger messes. This product has an EPS design for environmental certified disinfectant, which means it was reviewed for both human health and environmental health, so you don't have to compromise on safety.

Ello Meal Prep Food Storage Container Set

That dorm room mini fridge was basically invented for leftovers. Keep your food fresh in these Ello food storage containers. Since they're made from glass instead of plastic, you can use them in the microwave without having to worry about harmful chemicals leeching into your food. Bonus: they're dishwasher safe!

Brita 20oz Premium Double-Wall Stainless Steel Insulated Filtered Water Bottle

Students do a lot of walking while on campus, so make sure to stay hydrated with a reusable water bottle! This insulated Brita stainless steel bottle will keep your water cool even on the hottest days. Bonus: It has a built in filter to keep your water pure and delicious.

Bodum Goose Neck 27oz Electric Water Kettle

You don't need a kitchen to enjoy a kettle! This compact glass kettle is perfect for dorm snacks like hot chocolate, tea, or coffee.

Klean Kanteen 12oz TKWide Insulated Stainless Steel with Café Cap

This stainless steel travel mug by Klean Kanteen is the perfect mug to toss in your backpack while you're on the go! It's spill and leak proof lid means you can enjoy your beverage on the go in any situation!

Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Soap

Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap is a multi-use concentrate. Great as a body wash or even a shampoo or detergent. Its highly concentrated and made with great ingredients to ensure you get a bang for your buck and peace of mind.

Schmidt's Charcoal + Magnesium Aluminum-Free Natural Deodorant Stick

Aluminium-free deodorant is where its at! Stay fresh and free of unnecessary harmful chemicals.

Weleda Skin Food Original Ultra-Rich Cream

Keep that skin moisturized and toxic-free with this rich cream. Perfect for dry weather.

Stasher Reusable Silicone Food Storage Snack Bag

Great for taking a snack to lecture or for a weekend adventure, these Stasher snack bags are the answer to a useful plastic bags without all the waste and plastic made from harmful materials.

Seventh Generation Dish Liquid Soap

This dish soap will cut through grease and leave your dishes shiny and spotless without all the unnecessary harmful chemicals.

Life

Everything You Need to Know About Artificial Turf

And why natural grass is a safer, eco-friendly, and healthier alternative

Have you ever been at your kid's soccer game and wondered if artificial turf is safe for them to play, snack, and lie on? What about those small black bits of infill that end up in every nook and cranny of your home or car?

Turns out that scientists are studying these same questions and artificial turf poses a number of health and environmental concerns. These include toxic chemicals in the artificial turf infill, artificial grass blades, and shock pad, as well as health concerns due to excessive heat. Environmental impacts of artificial turf include chemical runoff, microplastic pollution, and habitat loss. Is there a good alternative to artificial turf? Yes - just regular natural grass! Studies have shown that natural grass maintained with organic or sustainable practices provides a safer, practical, and affordable alternative for playing fields.

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Roundups

Non-Toxic School Lunch Packing Essentials

Get ready for school with these eco-friendly options

Packing lunches for school is a lot of work! We know from firsthand experience how hard it can be to pack something nutritious that your kids will actually eat. Plus if you're trying to reduce the amount of food packaging or plastic waste in your kid's lunch, it can just seem overwhelming. To make things easier, we rounded up our favorite non-toxic school lunch packing essentials. We included stainless steel lunchboxes, a hot food container, snack containers and bags, reusable food wrap, and a couple of cute and functional lunch bags. All of these items are free of lead, phthalates (commonly found in vinyl), BPA, and PFAS (Teflon-like chemicals). Check out these lunch packing essentials and get inspired to pack the best lunches ever.

a) Lunchbots Large Stainless Steel Lunch Container

Lunchbots is a great stainless steel bento container that will last for years. This one has 5 compartments for every type of lunch and snack combo you can come up with. You can get dip condiment containers that are leak proof that neatly fit inside. Lunchbots also has smaller containers for snacks that you should check out as well.

b) Planetbox Lunchbox

This stainless steel lunch box is easy for kids to open with a simple latch. The lunchbox comes with containers for wet foods and dips and you can buy extra dividers. The different compartments make it easy to pack a variety of foods. We love how it comes with magnets on the cover so that kids can customize the look. Planetbox also has an insulated carry bag, just make sure to pick one of the patterns that is made without a PFAS durable water repellent. Planetbox also has a smaller sized box for snacks or for little ones.

c) Bentgo Kids Stainless Steel

Bentgo is a favorite bento container that now comes in stainless steel! The silicone lining on the lid makes it leak resistant as and the latches make the container easy to open. It comes with 3 compartments and an extra silicone container.

d) Thermos Stainless Steel Insulated Food Jar

This container keeps food hot for 5 hours and is perfect for days when soup or mac n cheese are on the menu. The handle make it convenient to carry and helps kids open the top.

e) Stasher bags

Stasher bags are so popular for a reason! Say goodbye to single use plastic bags and say hello to a reusable food packing essential that comes in lots of fun colors. We particularly love the sandwich and snack sizes and use them daily.

f) Zip Top Snack Containers

These Zip Top container are as convenient to use as they are cute! We love how they sit flat and are easy to open for small hands. They are perfect for some sliced fruit or any loose snack.

g) Ukonserve Round Nesting Trio Stainless Steel Containers

These snack containers come with see through lids so that kids know what's inside. The are great for snacks, or use all three to pack a bento style lunch. They also nest for easy storage.

h) If you care Sandwich Bags

Sometimes you need a disposable sandwich or snack bag. No judgement! These If You Care unbleached sandwich bags are made of greaseproof, nonstick paper which is biodegradable, compostable, and microwave safe. Perfect for a cookie, sandwich, or other dry snack.

i) Bee's Wrap Reusable Food Wrap

Replace plastic wrap with this sustainable alternative. Bee's Wrap is made from GOTS Certified organic cotton, sustainably harvested beeswax, organic jojoba oil, and tree resin. We love wrapping up snacks, sandwiches, and cut up fruits and veggies in these.

j) Fluf Lunch Bag

This organic cotton canvas lunch bag is fully machine washable! The interior is lined with a food safe water resistant lining (free of PFAS, phthalates, and other harmful chemicals) and has a pocket for a ice pack. The bag comes in so many cute prints and has a very durable canvas handle.

k) Fjallraven Kanken Mini Cooler

This well insulated lunch bag is made of durable, waxed fabric that is PFAS free! Bonus that the the fabric is made from recycled plastic. It comes in lots of cute colors and is sure to be a favorite for kids of all ages.

l) Petit Collage

A roomy insulated lunch box that is easy to wipe clean thanks to a biodegradable laminate made from sugar cane. It comes in several cute patterns and comes with a handle or a strap.

m) Ukonserve insulated lunch bag

This lunch bag is made from recycled plastic bottles and is free of PFAS, phthalates, and other toxic chemicals. It holds ups well to daily use and is roomy enough to pack a lunch plus snacks.

Family

The 3 Easiest Things You Can Do for a Non-Toxic Pregnancy

Some no brainer, healthier swaps for you and baby

First off, congrats! Feeling overwhelmed? Excited but nervous? Well, fear not! You have plenty of time to set up your nursery, nest a bit, and even think of some names. But right now, it's time to take care of yourself. At this point, that is the best way to take care of your baby.

We've narrowed it down to the 3 easiest changes you can make that will help you have a non-toxic pregnancy. We promise, they are relatively no brainer swaps that have been shown to impact the health of your growing baby. If you start now, these are all things you will want to do once the baby is born, so you'll have created some healthy habits.

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Roundups

Non-Toxic Paints for Your Nursery or Kids' Rooms

Baby safe and kid safe paints that are zero VOC and APE free

Painting and decorating a nursery is one of the best parts of waiting for a little one. Or adding a splash of color when making the transition from nursery to little kid room is also super fun. Whether you're painting just one accent wall, the entire room, or an unfinished pieces of furniture in just the perfect shade, it's important to pick a paint that not only looks good, but is baby and kid safe. Paint fumes and chemical additives can linger and baby's systems are especially vulnerable and sensitive. Luckily, there are safer paints on the market so that you can feel good about using them so close to where your little ones will sleep.

Best Practices While Painting

First things first- how to paint. Who paints a room and how the room is painted is super important in protecting your health. If you're currently pregnant, ask your partner or a friend to do the painting for you. You definitely don't need to be exposed to paint fumes while you're still growing a little person. You're doing enough as is! Also make sure there are no toddlers around while painting. Although having a little helper would be really cute, toddlers are in a critical developmental period and are especially susceptible to the negative effects of paint fumes. Plus you probably don't want anything with wet paint on it to become a messy toy!

It's also critical to ventilate as much as you can while painting. Have all windows and doors open and a fan running if possible. Even a box fan in the corner will help! When you're not using the paint (whether it's a small break or overnight), keep the lid sealed securely on the container. This will prevent emissions from escaping while the paint isn't in use.

What to Look for in a Safe Paint

Now that you know how to paint, which paint should you use? There are a ton of paints on the market right now that all boast different features. Who knew there were so many different paint finishes?! But here's what you really need to be on the lookout for:

  1. Zero VOCs (volatile organic compounds). VOCs are toxic gasses that are released from solids or liquids. Basically they are released when paint dries. You know, the weird new paint smell? Well VOCs can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat but repeated and long term exposure can cause cancer and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system (1). Also, the pigments added to paints can have VOCs, particularly darker pigments, so be on the lookout for paint with zero VOC colorants.
  2. Look for APE- free paints. Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) are a group of chemicals that are suspected endocrine disruptors (a.k.a these little guys mess up how hormones should normally work in the body) (2). You don't want those around babies or children or when you're breastfeeding. APE-free paint can be found easily, so just ask or look on the label.
  3. Avoid paints that are advertised as antimicrobial. Many paints contain a preservative to keep the paint fresh during storage, but paints that are advertised as antimicrobial may have other additives that are really just not necessary and there are no standards for efficacy (like does it actually kill harmful germs? And for how long?) It might sound good, but in reality they are also harmful to humans and don't do much (3).

Our Baby Safe and Kid Safe Paint Recommendations

Our recommendations will take the guesswork out of choosing a non-toxic paint brand, although you'll still have to pick the color! These paints are all zero VOCs and are free of APEs. In addition to the standard latex paints, we also included 2 options for milk paint, which are made from milk proteins and pigments. Milk paints are a bit more work to use, but are easy to use once you get the hang of it and you can create antique or smooth finishes. They are also great for painting furniture and decorations. No matter which paint brand you pick, you can feel safe about using them.

a) AFM Safecoat Zero VOC- This paint was designed specifically for those with allergies, asthma, and chemical sensitive. It comes in flat, pearl, eggshell, and semi-gloss finishes. Zero VOC, zero VOC colorants, APE free, and contains no mildewcides and fungicides. All ingredients are disclosed and the paint is SCS certified for indoor advantage gold.

b) Benjamin Moore Eco Spec- Benjamin Moore recently stopped making their Natura paint, but their Eco Spec paint is very similar and available nationally. Zero VOC, zero VOC colorants, and APE free. It is Green Seal 11 certified. It does contain isothiazolinone compounds to inhibit the growth of mold or mildew on the surface of the paint film.

c) Clare Paint- This paint come in specific designer curated colors, which can really help if you can't pick a color! Zero VOC, zero VOC colorants, and the eggshell and semi-gloss paints are APE free. It is also Greenguard Gold certified. It does contain a mildewcide to inhibit the growth of mildew.

d) Lullaby paints or ECOS paints- ECOS paint, which also makes their Lullaby paint line is a great zero VOC paint, with zero VOC colorants, APE free, and contains no algicides, mildewcides, and rust inhibitors. They have a color catalogue or you they can color match any national brand. They have both a Declare label and a Health Product Declaration in which they disclose all ingredients. Declare labels are issued to products disclosing ingredient inventory, sourcing and end of life options. Health Product Declarations are third party verified and include the health impact of all product ingredients.

e) Sherwin Williams Harmony- A zero VOC paint, zero VOC colorant paint that is available nationally. The primer and flat finishes are APE free. The paints are also Greenguard Gold certified. It does contain anti-microbial agents that inhibit the growth of mold and mildew on the paint surface.

f) Real Milk Paint- A natural paint option where the main ingredient is casein (milk protein). It comes as a powder that you mix it with water. The ingredients are casein (milk protein), calcium lime, natural pigment colors, and an edible plant based filler

g) Old Fashioned Milk Paint Farmhouse Finishes Safe Paint- This line of milk paint is formulated especially for painting walls. It comes as a powder that you mix with water. The ingredients are casein(milk protein), calcium hydroxide, chalk, clay, natural pigments, natural salts, and crystalline silica.

Updated for 2022!

Your little one deserves a crib that is both good looking and healthy. While we can't promise they will sleep through the night, we can promise that these cribs aren't covered in harsh chemicals or releasing large amounts of potentially dangerous fumes into your baby's room. We all want a nursery that will be a nurturing and loving place so that our babies can grow up strong and healthy. So we did our research and found all the highest rated cribs and then limited our picks to cribs that are GREENGUARD Gold certified, meaning they have been tested and meet stringent chemical and VOC emissions standards. That means your baby can sleep without fumes damaging their fragile lungs or irritating their eyes. And when your little one starts chewing on the rails, you can be rest assured that these paints and finishes are safe. We also included a non-toxic budget crib, which is a solid-wood choice from Ikea. While you are looking for a safe crib, you might also want to peruse our roundup of safe crib mattresses, to double down on the safest of safe sleeping places for your kiddos.

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