Don't be Fooled by "Eco-Friendly" Packaging

Misleading marketing jargon and unscrupulous production mean that so-called ‘sustainable’ packaging isn’t always what it seems. (LukaTDB / GettyImages)

With takeout orders on the rise around the world, so too, are takeout containers and single-use plastics. Instead of dining in with reusable silverware and china, customers are now using foam plates, plastic forks, paper napkins, and to-go cups in excess, creating waste that will pollute the earth for up to 500 years. In an attempt to mitigate the harm of to-go packaging, operators have embraced sustainable packaging.

Unfortunately, not everything labeled ‘eco-friendly’ actually is. While there have been strides made in the development of compostable materials and recyclable items, these somewhat sustainable options still have their negatives when it comes to an eco-friendly lifestyle.

One such provider, Eco Products out of Boulder, Colorado, has made it their mission to shift the industry towards sustainable disposable products. The leader in single-use goods claims to be “a green company who happens to operate in disposables,” rather than a “disposable products company trying to act green,” as stated on their website. Using Polylactic Acid (PLA),Post-Consumer Recycled PET (rPET), Post-Consumer Recycled Fiber (PCF), Post-Consumer Recycled Polystyrene (rPS), sugarcane, and plant starch sources, Eco Products has an entire line of recycled content products. Using renewable plant materials or post-consumer recycled materials that have been reused, recycled and repurposed, means less waste is created. 

The problem is, many recycling facilities don’t accept PLA products, which are made from starchy plants including corn. PLA is considered a contaminant within the recycling streams, and therefore should not be mixed with PET (posts-consumer recycled plastic, polystyrene or fiber products). Since PLAs compromise the recycling program, they have to be removed from the recycling batch, which requires water, energy and costly resources. 

And although they’re marketed as biodegradable, they don’t break down in backyard compost bins, either. Rather, they need to be sent to industrial facilities to be broken down. Those industrial facilities are hard to find, and according to Biocycle, only a few hundred of the 4,000 composting facilities in the U.S. accept these bio-plastics. To locate a composter near you, visit findacomposter.com

Even if you can find a place to compost your sustainable containers, there’s still another concern, this time, a health one. The Counter reported that compostable bowls, like the ones used at Chipotle and other fast-casual restaurants, contain cancer-causing ingredients. Although labeled as compostable, experts found all molded fiber bowls containing PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (fluorinated compounds), do not naturally biodegrade. Instead, they actually make compost more toxic, adding hazardous chemicals that never break down into the water and soil. 

Older types of PFAS chemicals have been linked to colitis, thyroid disorders, kidney and testicular cancers, but these are mostly banned in the U.S. The new varieties have not been studied as closely, and are still being used daily in fiber bowls in restaurants. Last year, San Francisco banned bowls intentionally manufactured with PFAS, which most restaurants depend on for their packaging purposes. The industry in California is still searching for a widespread alternative.

Given the potential dangers and disruptions some of these ‘eco-friendly’ options pose, other cities have turned to different alternatives. Berkeley, California, for example, ruled that all cafes and restaurants charge $0.25 per disposable cup, and require all lids, utensils, straws, and clamshell containers to be certified compostable and free of intentionally-added fluorides. Santa Cruz adopted a similar $0.25 per disposable cup in 2020.

Some companies have seen this as a business opportunity, including GO Box,a zero-waste, reusable takeout container service based in Portland, Oregon. Customers can check out a sturdy plastic container to reuse, and then drop it off at designated locations when they’re finished with it. The company collects, cleans and sanitizes the takeout box before the next customer uses it, and the containers are recycled at the end of their lifespans. 

Still, others think the most eco-friendly option is to eliminate the whole single-use culture entirely.  RoosRoast co-owner, Kath Weider-Roos, remembers the moment the pandemic put an indefinite pause on her business’ plan. “We were on the cusp of launching a pretty radical program that was designed to really cut down on single-use packaging,” she said. The company was looking at implementing a program where customers would purchase Ball jars to reuse in their cafe.

Known as an ethical, sustainable company, RoosRoast is the first roaster in Michigan to invest in a Loring Smart Roaster, which uses 80% less energy than a traditional roaster. Their headquarters also utilize solar panels and they offer Keep Cup, a type of glass reusable cup, instore.

KeepCup reports that one million disposable cups end up in landfills every minute. Weider-Roos said her community in Ann Arbor, Michigan - like most others -  has a real demand for single-use to-go cups. Inspired by Washington and Portland’s bring-your-own-mug mentality, she wanted to provide a viable alternative for local community cafes, and felt like there was serious momentum in that direction, pre-Covid.

“I think the whole industry was gearing up to address this,” she said. “Blue Bottle Coffee got bought out by Nestle, and they were embarking on a really radical experimentation of getting rid of all single-use packaging in their cafes. They’re really big as a national company, and they were taking the steps. I feel like there was all this momentum in the industry, and now, everything’s on pause.” RoosRoast employees aren’t even allowed to refill customers' own cups anymore, due to Covid-19 health and safety regulations. 

RoosRoast has had to put a pause on their glass jar program, and has seen an increase in single-use cups during the pandemic’s takeout trajectory. Despite more sustainable single-use options being there, Weider-Roos said the technology and innovation hasn’t truly been tackled yet. “It’s really hard to find the actual solution to your problem in the packaging marketplace,” she said. 

“We’ve had a lot of problems with compostable cups that just leak because they dissolve. You can’t put a hot drink into it. That’s why, in a way, we were giving up on an eco option. It really was kind of acknowledging that the technology is not there. This whole idea of single-use packaging has to be addressed. We’re not going to totally solve the issue (of single-use packaging) with some eco-friendly packaging.”

Arbor Tea, another cafe in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has gone beyond keep cups. They are the first tea company in the country to offer an entire line of organic loose teas in backyard compostable packaging, a program they launched in 2010. Their hemp and sugar cane-based paper packaging is designed to rapidly break down in backyards, as opposed to industrial centers. 

Although there are strides being made in recyclable containers and backyard-compostable packaging, the journey to find a safe and effective alternative continues. Weider-Roos believes the impetus to push that movement isn’t on small businesses, but rather on larger corporations. “It takes something at the level of a Starbucks, because what they’re going to do is pave the way. They’re going to pave the way to create the solution,” she said. “We can’t really do it on our level of small business.”

How to Transition to Eco-Friendly Options: Where to Start

  • Research the different types of sustainable takeout container options for your individual business needs. Each material has different qualities, and therefore, different uses/best practices. For example, most post-consumer recycled content performs better with hot liquids/foods than containers made from renewable sources. Eco Products breaks down the differences between their two varieties here, and the comparison is a good place to start in understanding the different capabilities of sustainable options. 
  • Research local recycling/compost centers. Locate a nearby composting center, and find out if they accept your materials, and how to participate in their program.
  • Take things one day at a time. The industry is ever-evolving, and technology is constantly churning out new options; some better than others. This is a drastic change that cannot be switched overnight, but making small changes everyday can make a big difference. 

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