We all do it: when we’re tired after a long day at work, or when we just don’t want to cook, we order take-out food. And with all that tasty goodness comes packaging. And with all that packaging comes a problem: waste. Lots of waste.
A group of scientists from the University of Manchester in England says that more needs to be done to deal with the growing environmental impact of take-out containers (or takeaway containers, as they call them in England). The study they conducted estimates there are 2.2 billion take-out containers being used in the European Union each year. It also reveals that finding a way to recycle disposable take-out containers could help reduce equivalent greenhouse gas emissions generated annually by 55,000 cars.
In the study, the researchers looked at aluminum, polystyrene (Styrofoam), and polypropylene (clear plastic) containers. These were compared to reusable plastic containers such as Tupperware. Although the study found that while Styrofoam containers have the lowest carbon footprint of the three types of containers they studied, they can’t be considered a sustainable packaging material because they’re not recycled at a mass level and usually end up in landfills.
Another problem with Styrofoam is “because they are so light, the Styrofoam containers can easily be blown away, contributing to urban and marine litter,” said Dr. Joan Fernandez Mendoza, one of the study’s authors. “So, despite their lower life cycle environmental impacts relative to the other containers, Styrofoam containers cannot be considered a sustainable packaging option unless they can be recycled at a large scale.”
The study also found that reusable Tupperware-style containers had a lower carbon footprint than disposable Styrofoam when the Tupperware containers were reused more than 18 times. This finding includes factoring in the energy and water used for their cleaning. Disposable clear plastic containers needed even fewer uses—only five—to become better for the environment than Styrofoam in terms of carbon footprint.
“As consumers, we can play a significant role in reducing the environmental impacts of food packaging by reusing food containers as long as possible,” said lead researcher Professor Adisa Azapagic. “Our study shows clearly that the longer we reuse them, the lower their impacts become over their extended lifetimes.”
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