Better for the Planet, Our Health, and the Economy

Why Reusable Takeout Packaging is the Future

Food

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

Let's start by acknowledging that take out is a wonderful invention, especially during the pandemic. Getting takeout is one of the only activities that still feels normal, helps support local business, and brings so much joy! While we're not going to give up our Postmates habit any time soon, we do have a few suggestions for ways to make your next lunch or Tuesday night takeout a little healthier, without saying you have to order the steamed veggies.

Our focus is on what the food comes in and not what you are ordering - no judgement here if you get the pizza and cheesy bread (they're different!). We are more concerned about the container your food might be served in. That styrofoam container housing your piping hot pad thai or that molded fiber bowl your fancy grain bowl is served in might pose a hidden health risk.

Well, here's the deal, all that packaging can affect the food, and in turn, your health down the road. And not like heart disease from a greasy indulgence now and again or a bout of food poisoning, but things like infertility, suppressed immune functions, and even neurological disorders. These issues, and others that result from a disrupted endocrine system, are associated with the highly fluorinated chemicals (PFAS) and various types of plastic present in most take out and food packaging materials.

But to be completely frank, figuring out what exactly is in the specific container your favorite restaurant uses isn't all that easy. There are so many different options when it comes to to-go containers that it can be migraine-inducing trying to figure out what is what. So, rather than listing out every possible take out container you might see and saying this one is safe, but this one isn't, we are just going to share some info that's easy to remember and can make a general improvement. Because hey, every little change adds up and makes a difference down the line.

So, here's the deal. We went through this report from Center for Environmental Health and a recent study on grocery takeout containers, and pulled out some of the main facts. We compared those with other info researchers have found, and came up with this list of facts and tips for creating an even better takeout experience.

4 Facts about Take Out Containers

  1. The "best" options (meaning the ones that contains the fewest chemicals that are likely to leach into your food or the environment after you throw it away) are ones that are compostable and fluorine free. That means those brown paper boxes marked with a green seal saying they are made from 100% recycled paperboard or the white paper soup containers that have a green stripe and similar compostable markings. Another option is plastic-like containers that are actually made of something called bioplastic or PLA (polylactic acid) that are completely compostable. These are often used for things like salads or compostable cold drink cups. Foil containers also seem to be safe because foil is less likely to change due to heat.
  2. If you can't find compostable, or foil containers, the next best options are plastic containers that are recyclable and marked with the number 2 or the number 5. These are "safer" plastics when it comes to transporting hot food, and they can be easily recycled in most communities.
  3. Styrofoam is bad. We all instinctively know it. What even is that material? (answer: it's polystyrene, which is a form of plastic). Anyway, if you can avoid it you should. It easily releases chemicals into hot foods and drinks and takes forever to break down in the world once you toss it and is not really recyclable.
  4. Molded fibers, so things like those brown cardboard-y bowls that look natural like they should be better for you, often aren't. To make the paper water and oil resistant, they often use a highly fluorinated chemical, which isn't something we want a lot extra of in our bodies.

And, if even that sounds like a lot to remember, here are some tips that can help reduce the impact takeout containers have on your life.


The Good News

Thankfully, in recent years retailers have started taking a stance against PFAS in their packaging. Many are committing to phasing PFAS out from the packaging or have stopped using this harmful chemical altogether! Big chain stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's have started to take action to stop using packaging with PFAS, as well as fast food chains like McDonald's and Taco Bell who have pledged to fully change their packaging by 2025. Chipotle has gone one stop further and totally eliminated this type of packaging. Make sure to support the places that are taking action!

States have also started to propose legislation to ban these harmful chemicals from packaging. New York, Washington, and Maine have already prohibited PFAS in food packaging and many states have provided new legislation that has not been passed yet or will go into effect in the next few years. And that's not all! Maine and dozens of cities in other states have banned the use of styrofoam as food containers.

The good news doesn't stop there! There are a growing number of companies and startups that are trying to solve this issue of wasteful and toxic takeout containers. A couple examples of these companies are Dispatch Goods in San Francisco and Go Box started in Portland. Both of these companies are providing reusable containers to restaurants and then later picking them up from the customer as well as providing drop off sites at different locations throughout the city. There are a lot of new companies working on removing toxic chemicals from our takeout containers and trying to reduce the amount of waste that they create. So while we wait for bills and legislation to be passed, we can rest easier knowing that there are some companies taking action into their own hands.


4 Tips for Healthier Take Out

Phasing out or banning the use of PFAS or styrofoam is a big step in the right direction to lessen our exposure to these toxic chemicals. But until we have a nationwide (or global!) ban on these chemicals from food contact, you might also want to check out these tips for making your take out experience a little healthier.

  1. Try to notice what your food comes in when your food arrives, then order from places that already use better options. It doesn't have to be every time (maybe you are just really craving that chicken from the place on the corner that only uses styrofoam clamshells - that's okay), but if you are between two, let the packaging factor in.
  2. Before ordering your food ask the server or hostess what kind of containers the food will come in. If the food comes in a container that you're not happy with, maybe try somewhere else for dinner. And if you are really outgoing or go to the same place regularly, consider talking to them about switching to something better like compostable options.
  3. If you are feeling passionate about this issue, try getting involved at the local level or find organizations in your area that are working on it or a similar issue. There are a lot of organizations fighting to ban styrofoam or harmful chemicals from food packaging and even to create state composting systems. You could also start your own movement, the sky's the limit!
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Roundups

The 10 Best Healthier & Eco-Friendly Disposable Diapers

Our picks that is good for your baby and the planet

Cloth diapering just not for you? No judgement here! When it comes to disposable diapers, we know that all parents want the best for their baby, but are often overwhelmed by the choices and all the healthy and environmental claims that companies make. We evaluated 26 diapers that claim to be non-toxic, green, or natural. We looked at whether they were free of harmful and irritating ingredients and assessed truth of their eco-friendly claims. We then developed a score for each diaper and found 10 great options in every budget.

Keep Reading Show Less


No matter where you live, sustainability is becoming a hot topic. It might be a friendly reminder sign to bring your reusable bag to the grocery store, a city government conversation about not using straws, or it could run as deep as cities committing to be zero waste - some as early as next year. With all of this comes the question of what sort of products are best for the world? Is biodegradable really any different from compostable. Should I opt for compostable options over recyclable ones? Does reusing things help?

All of these are great questions! And the answer to all of them has an impact on our planet, and oftentimes our health, too.

So, first of all, what do all of these different terms that are being thrown around really mean? Let's start with the one we probably have all heard the most: recyclable.

Recyclable

Recycling is the process of taking a product and breaking it down to use it again, often as a raw material. We all know that we can recycle paper, plastic, and cans. In most places, recycling facilities can also deal with glass. All of this is great, but let's break down the concept a little bit more. Quick note, each city is slightly different and you should check exactly what can and can't be recycled in your neighborhood before you just assume you are good to go.

Tossing something you think or hope can be recycled into the recycling bin is often called wishful or aspirational recycling. While your heart is in the right place, doing this might actually be worse than just trashing something you aren't clear on. Why? Because that one iffy thing can actually be enough to compromise a full batch of recycling, which could mean everything ends up in the landfill instead of just the one questionable item. In those situations, the best option would be to confirm before you dispose of it. And, if your neighborhood doesn't recycle it, ask your city to start accepting those items. But, in the meantime, if you don't know, don't just hope it can be recycled.

Back to the topic at hand, what is actually recyclable? Most plastics that hold their shape can be recycled (like water bottles, food containers, bottles for household items, etc.). In some places, they have even started being able to accept items like plastic grocery bags, shrink wrap, and plastic wrap if it is packaged correctly. Other commonly accepted items for recycling include paper, cardboard, unbroken glass and metal (including tinfoil if it's clean and in a large enough ball).

Some common items that need special recycling (but are in fact recyclable) include: batteries, electronics, and fabric (and clothing). Check with your waste management provider to see what can and can't be recycled in your neighborhood.

Compostable

This is becoming more common in larger metropolitan cities. Composting is a way to turn items made of natural materials back into a nutrient rich soil. Often times the compost is for food scraps, but other items that are fully compostable include yard scraps, dead flowers, items made of untreated wood, and those made of pure cotton. While starting with food scraps is the easiest, the more you look around the more you will find items for other parts of your life that are completely compostable.

Compostable items are great because instead of going to landfill or needing to be processed and turned into something else, they actually breakdown themselves in a natural setting (or in an industrial facility) to create something useful right away.

But, what happens if you have items that are compostable but don't have access to composting. Side note: you can create a compost pile in your own backyard (or under your sink). We know that isn't for everyone though. So, what happens if these items end up in just in your standard trash bin? You might think that it's still an improvement and they will break down, right? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that's not exactly the case. Compostable items break down into nutrient rich soil only if they have the right conditions. And a traditional landfill is not a place with the right conditions.

Industrial facilities have the optimal conditions for composting. These facilities regulate temperature, moisture, and air flow in order to ensure a compostable item breaks down as fast as possible. At-home compost is more prone to temperature/moisture/air flow changes and might not break down as quickly as it would in an industrial setting.

Composting works best when the items have access to oxygen and are regularly being turned over. A landfill is basically the opposite. It's an anaerobic environment where most of the pile actually doesn't have access to oxygen. That means that if your compostable takeout container ends up in the landfill, it won't break down as intended. Instead, it will mostly likely just act like a plastic container and stay around for a lot longer than intended.

So, while recognizing compostable items is a good first step, purchasing and using compostable items in place of other items has the biggest impact when they actually end up in a compost pile. Although, we do want to mention that the production of plastic is pretty nasty for a lot of reasons, so opting for compostable items made of cotton, bamboo, and even PLA (that vegetable based plastic cup you see at some restaurants now), is probably still better for the environment and your health.

Biodegradable

The dictionary definition of biodegradable is a substance that can break down naturally without causing any harm (1). This is very similar to compostable, but the biggest difference is that what it breaks down to doesn't cause harm as opposed to starting with an organically occurring materials. Therefore, man-made or chemically produced items can still be considered biodegradable, while not necessarily being compostable. This is like a square being a rectangle but a rectangle not being a square. Those items that are compostable are also biodegradable, but not everything biodegradable is compostable.

Again, biodegradable options are still a step in the right direction. It does mean that the ingredients break down over time (that's a perk) and when they do break down, the base components are not harmful to the environment (also a perk).

One drawback of biodegradable materials is that there is not necessarily a timeframe for when the items will break down. It could be many years before they start to degrade. In most cases, biodegradable isn't really saying much about the product. Think of it the same way you do products labeled "natural."

The bottom line

If we were to rank these terms for which ones are best for the planet and in turn our health, we'd say first look for items that are compostable, recyclable, and lastly biodegradable. Compostable items, if properly disposed of, will break down completely and can them be used to grow more resources. Recyclable items can be turned into raw materials that can then be used to make new things without needing to create completely new resources. And finally, biodegradable options will eventually break down, but we don't know when and there is no plan to use them for any additional benefit.

Of course, we are big proponents of reusing items when possible, but we also know that it can be incredibly hard to live your life without there being some items that needs to be disposed of. So, go on with this new information to help you think about what to toss and how to do it best.





References

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/biodegradable
Roundups

Non-Toxic Baby Wipes

Get them nice and clean without worrying about wipes with unnecessary and irritating ingredients

Kids and mess seem to go hand-in-hand. Not that we mind- we just want a baby wipe that can clean everything up without necessary chemicals! That's why we researched and rounded up our favorite non-toxic baby wipes. These wipes are gentle and won't cause a rash but are tough enough to use on face, body, and hands. Dirty diapers and sticky fingers don't stand a chance against our top picks! We even have 2 options that are compostable!

a) Attitude Baby Natural baby wipes

b) Pampers aqua pure

c) Babyganics face, hand, and baby wipes fragrance free

d) Up and Up fragrance free baby wipes

e) Seventh Generation free and clear wipes

f) Waterwipes

g) ECO by Naty babycare sensitive wipes, unscented, and with aloe (Compostable baby wipe)

h) Pipette baby wipes

i)Honest company baby wipes

j) Kinder by Nature Jackson Reece Plant based baby wipes (Compostable baby wipe)

If you're looking for some non-toxic diaper to go with these baby wipes, check out our diaper cream roundup.

We rely on EWG's consumer databases, the Think Dirty App, and GoodGuide in addition to consumer reviews and widespread availability of products to generate these recommendations. Learn more on our methodology page.

*Because Health is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program so that when you click through our Amazon links, a percentage of the proceeds from your purchases will go to Because Health. We encourage you to shop locally, but if you do buy online buying through our links will help us continue the critical environmental health education work we do. Our participation does not influence our product recommendations. To read more about how we recommend products, go to our methodology page.

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