Styrofoam food packaging, made from a hard plastic called polystyrene, poses a plethora of problems. First off, it takes an extremely long time to degrade, and it accounts for 10-40 percent of all litter found in streams. The production of polystyrene also releases about fifty different chemicals byproducts into the air, water, and local communities. This is exactly why the state of New York will ban the use of single-use styrofoam food containers and packaging peanuts starting January 1st, 2022.
According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the new rule applies to restaurants, caterers, food carts, food trucks, food stores, grocers, cafeterias, coffee shops, delis, colleges, schools, and more. However, there are a few exceptions to the ban, including raw meat and seafood sold with the intention of being prepared off-premises by the customer. Non-profits and places of worship that supply food to those in need may also continue to serve food packaged in styrofoam if they qualify for a certain waiver.
There are no federal bans on styrofoam packaging yet, and all current bans are on a city or county level. In addition to New York, there are 11 other cities throughout the U.S. that do not allow food or beverages to be served in styrofoam packaging, including major cities like San Francisco (CA), Portland (Oregon), and Seattle (WA).
Without styrofoam, what is next for to-go food packaging? Companies producing and developing alternatives to traditional food packaging are focused on using sustainable and biodegradable materials that release little to no chemicals when processed.
In recent years, one of the most popular alternatives to styrofoam is using plant-based fibers to create compostable food to-go containers. Many different fibers can be used for this application, including sugar cane, corn, potato, and bamboo. Packaging made from paper, especially recycled paper, is another common choice. Although these materials are compostable, some compostable packaging contains “forever chemicals” that never break down. A Hong Kong-based company called Ecoinno uses sugar cane and bamboo to craft to-go containers without the use of any of these particular chemicals or plastics.
During this past summer, delivery service Delivery Hero launched a sustainable packaging program for restaurants it serves in an attempt to cut down on single-use and toxic packaging waste. QSRs like Burger King and Taco Bell have begun trialing various alternatives to their original single-use packaging, like reusable, recyclable, and compostable packaging.
This week, a London-based company called Notpla raised €11.7 million (~$13.1 million USD) for its seaweed-based packaging that “disappears”. The alternative packaging fully degrades within 4-6 weeks without the use of any special processing. Although NotPla’s packaging is intended to be a direct replacement for plastic and not styrofoam, this still has potential for the restaurant and food space.
Despite the awareness of the negative environmental consequences of styrofoam, not many cities or states in the U.S. have enforced a ban. Hopefully, with the rise of more packaging alternatives, we will see more places adopting legislature around single-use packaging and plastics. In the meantime, if you are interested in supporting restaurants that use sustainable packaging, check out the free app Jybe.