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What are the most environmentally friendly alternatives for food packaging?

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Orb Media, an independent, non-profit journalism organization dedicated to global sustainability, has identified the best available materials and technologies of disposable food service products around the world today. By working with currently available information and applying a scientific methodology, they have identified five major product categories and preferred products for use when reusable packaging is not available.

In each product category, they have identified at least one off-the-shelf branded product that you can look out for. Not all brands may be available in your region. 

1. Clamshells, takeout containers, plates & bowls

Preferred Pick A: Palm leaf plates and bowls

Why we like the material: No liners, barriers or binding agents are needed for these products, which is a big plus for chemical safety. Palm-based tableware is also compostable in any setting, including a backyard compost bin. The products are beautiful, with patterns and natural variations. 

Areca palms are grown on plantations for their seeds, or nuts that are often called betel nut or areca nut. The palm leaves collected for disposable foodware are a byproduct or waste product of the primary crop. These are found primarily in India as well as other Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia.  

Areca palm is a distinct species from the oil palms grown on a much larger scale for palm oil, of which are implicated in many environmental-related problems. Though close to ideal in terms of safety and sustainability, areca palm leaf plates and bowls are also currently more costly, and arguably less practical in certain settings due to potential limitations in supply and sourcing if brought to a larger scale. 

Example brandsWhole Leaf CompanyVegWareGreenbox PalmWareLeafWare

Why we like these brands: It is difficult to select a single representative brand or product here, because many brands offer relatively similar products, which may or may not come from some of the same manufacturers or sources. 

The Whole Leaf Company, based in London, was founded in 2007. Others are more recent entries, but all claim to take the same basic approach to producing safe, sustainable tableware: harvest fallen areca palm leaves, wash them and heat-press them into shape. 

Preferred Pick B: PFAS-free molded fiber bowls, plates and clamshells

Why we like the material: An increasingly popular plastic alternative used in a wide variety of food service settings including takeout, delivery, and fast-casual dining. These compostable molded fiber bowls are typically constructed from fibers or pulp from bamboo, sugarcane and wheat straw. 

According to multiple sources, including Martin Mulvihill of SaferMade, the development of PFAS-free options in recent months and years was spurred by consumer backlash, local regulations, and perhaps most significantly, the Biodegradable Products Institutes’ ban. The ban that began in January 2020 regulates levels of total fluorine, an indicator of added PFAS, above 100 parts per million. Products that fail to meet this requirement are not certified by the BPI. This can impact product use as the organization’s seal of approval continues to carry a lot of weight in the compostable foodware industry.

Example brands and products: Eco-Products VanguardFootprint ecoCafe and ecoToGoWorld Centric LeafEcoInno

Why we like these products: These four product lines all offer different and imperfect solutions to the problem of highly fluorinated chemicals in compostable molded fiber bowls. 

Eco-Products, which has received BPI certification for its new PFAS-free Vanguard line, and Footprint, which has not yet received BPI certification but expects to, both use proprietary novel chemicals in place of PFAS that they say have been screened for safety. 

As with PFAS before them, these chemicals are added to the wet pulp before molding to ensure that the final product is grease-resistant. Additional assurances from third-party certifiers such as Green Screen for Safer Chemicals, which launches a new food packaging program in the first quarter of 2021, will solidify the case for these chemical alternatives. These assurances will also bring these new products to a large scale since such chemical substitutes have yet to receive adequate vetting.

Footprint adds an element of sustainability to some of its products through the use of fibers from recycled post-industrial, pre-consumer sources. One representative cites that the company mitigates possible chemical risks involved (from inks and dyes on recycled scraps and trimmings) through multiple cleaning steps during manufacturing. 

Meanwhile, World Centric employs a more traditional bioplastic lining made of PLA in its ‘Leaf’ line of PFAS-free molded-fiber bowls. While certainly an improvement from PFAS, PLA is also likely to contain chemical additives that may migrate into food, especially high heat, fatty or acidic food, and can be more difficult to compost. 

EcoInno is a Hong Kong startup and a recent entrant to this space. The company’s trademarked and proprietary cellulose-based “Green Composite Material” is the basis for its not-yet-available compostable molded fiber bowls. This technology achieves water and oil resistance without the use of chemicals or other barriers. Further testing however is required to confirm the purity of final products. 

Preferred Pick C: Uncoated, un-recycled paper plates

Why we like the material: Unlike natural palm or modern molded fiber, bare paper plates may appear old-fashioned or boring. It’s simplicity that makes them worth considering. 

As long as there is no coating or problematic binding agent — and no potentially chemical-laden recycled fibers used — this is a reliably safe product. The plates are sourced using virgin, certified-sustainable wood. In addition, bare paper plates are both easily recyclable (if clean and dry) and compostable (if food-soiled). Finally, these plates are cost-effective and lightweight. 

Although they may not hold up well to all types of food, uncoated paper plates are still a good option for disposable foodware.

Example brand: AJM Packaging

Why we like this brand: US-based AJM Packaging sources all of its paper from sustainably managed forests. The company recycles all paper waste in its factories while promoting recycling and commercial composting elsewhere. Its uncoated paper plates sell for pennies a piece.

Bamboo cutlery
Bamboo cutlery
Bioplastic cutlery by Hemptensils
Bioplastic cutlery by Hemptensils
Wooden cutlery by Birchware
Wooden cutlery by Birchware

2. Cutlery

Preferred Pick A: Wood

Why we like the material: Birch and bamboo cutlery products are grouped together here because they offer similar benefits. They can be sourced from fast-growing, easily renewable raw materials (birch is a tree and bamboo technically a grass); they break down easily; and they can be made without harmful chemicals. Biodegradability may vary from product to product (depending on temperature and duration) but they all break down more quickly than compostable plastics (discussed below). 

Potential chemical concerns in this category relate to the use of binding agents, if present.

Example brands: Birch: BirchwareEvoworld; Bamboo: BambuYolly

Why we like these brands: Based on their published materials, such as websites, marketing and various documented quality assurances, these brands appear to be particularly conscientious of chemical safety. As always, testing is required to know for sure; Yolly, for one, shares results from multiple third-party tests on its website.

Preferred Pick B: Bioplastic

Why we like the material: Conventional, petroleum-derived plastic is non-biodegradable and can be hard to recycle. Compostable bioplastics are often a better choice, but the most common option in this category, polylactic acid or PLA, that is typically made from corn starch, still raises concerns around sourcing and disposal. The two alternatives presented here, by comparison, are made from potentially more environmentally friendly raw materials. 

Example brands: BiofaseHemptensils

Why we like these brands: Instead of corn, Mexico-based Biofase uses avocado seeds, an agricultural waste product, as a source material. Hemptensils are made of hemp, a highly sustainable crop that can provide a wide variety of end uses, in addition to the raw materials of bioplastic. 

Biofase’s avocado-based utensils break down more readily than other bioplastics and in a broader range of conditions, including outside industrial composting facilities. Like all conventional and plant-based plastics, however, both products are likely to contain chemical additives that may migrate into food during use.

3. Straws

Preferred Pick A: Wheat/pasta

Why we like the material: This is a fun and easy top choice. No need to rehash the drawbacks of plastic straws that last forever or paper straws that collapse after a couple minutes of use. Both plastic and paper variants also contain potentially harmful chemical additives. In contrast, pasta straws are made from two ingredients: wheat and water. They hold their strength and shape in cold drinks — including thick drinks like shakes and malts — and will decompose virtually overnight after being discarded. They can also be eaten outright, as they are completely edible, and without altering the flavor of the drink. 

Example brandsThe Amazing Pasta StrawStroodles 

Why we like these brands: U.S.-based The Amazing Pasta Straw and U.K.-based Stroodles are two of the larger, more reputable companies producing pasta straws.

Preferred Pick B: Seaweed

Why we like the material: Seaweed is a fast-growing raw material that can be farmed in a safe, sustainable, and ecologically sound way.

Example brandLoliware

Why we like this brand: Loliware launched in 2014 with the promise of an edible, seaweed-based drinking cup. Although that failed to pan out then, the company is now developing, marketing and beginning to produce straws made from the same basic material. Loliware seaweed-based straws look, feel and act like plastic, can handle hot beverages, and can be used multiple times — and are technically edible. In addition, these cups are fully degradable once composted, or through natural processes, at roughly the same rate as food waste.

4. Flexible films

Preferred Pick A: Plant protein

Why we like the material: Flexible, transparent plastic films and wraps represent a large but often overlooked category of disposable food service ware. Plastic films are widely used to protect (and display) salads, sandwiches, bakery goods and other fresh or prepared foods, and only few alternatives exist. As the only current contender in the plant protein category, U.K.-based Xampla declares on its website that its new, fully biodegradable material looks and acts like plastic but contains no chemical additions.

Example brandXampla

Why we like this brand: Xampla’s proprietary technology is the first of its kind, with designs for flexible films used in food packaging and for other applications. A full product line is slated to be announced in 2021.

Preferred Pick A: Paper/cellulose

Why we like the material: Compared to flexible plastics, paper- and cellulose-based films are safer and more sustainable.

Example brands and productsSirane EarthFilm FreshFutamura NatureFlex

Why we like these products: EarthFilm Fresh, from U.K.-based food packaging company Sirane, is a translucent, paper-based film designed as a recyclable alternative to plastic for short-term storage of fresh produce, salads and other chilled goods. Its primary drawback is that it is treated with a coating of an undisclosed chemical makeup, although migration risk is generally low when used in low-temperature settings.

The new NatureFlex film from Futamura, a U.K.-based firm that specializes in cellulose-based films, commonly known as cellophane, improves upon previous designs by assuring better compostability (including in wastewater settings and home compost bins) as well as more responsible sourcing. NatureFlex is intended for use with fresh produce, bakery items and other food service applications. Like EarthFilm Fresh, this product also includes coatings of an unknown chemical makeup, although it is unlikely that it will come into direct contact with hot or high-fat foods.

5. Hot cups

Preferred Pick A: Paper with PLA lining

Why we like the material: In this case, the word “preferred” is used with reservations. Although the best available option among disposable cups for use with hot liquids, compostable paper lined with PLA is far from ideal. The material is somewhat problematic on three fronts. First, its sourcing, associated with producing both PLA and paper, may carry environmental impacts. In addition, like all bioplastics, the PLA lining can contain potentially harmful additives that may migrate into drinks, especially at higher temperatures and over longer durations of contact. Finally, these cups can be composted only in a commercial facility -- and cannot be recycled. When properly composted, however, these cups are more advantageous than alternatives.

Example brandsGood NaturedRepurpose

Why we like these brands: Canada-based Good Natured and U.S.-based Repurpose appear to be two of the more conscientious brands producing these cups, at least from a health standpoint. Although the former claims that its cups do not contain “chemicals of concern”, this is no guarantee of safety when it comes to plastics and heat. In interviews, experts have stressed that the only way to know for sure is through careful third-party testing of chemical migration and low-dose toxicity.

Preferred Pick B: Paper with water-based dispersion barrier

Why we like the material: U.K.-based food packaging supplier Sovereign offers an alternative to the paper-PLA combination. This is an improvement for disposal as the GoodLife Bio cup is home-compostable. As the company claims, the cup will fully decompose on a standard compost heap, or in a landfill, in four to six weeks. In addition, the cup is also fully recyclable in standard paper and board recycling systems.

Chemically, however, this cup leaves an even bigger question mark than PLA-lined options. The company does not disclose what its “water-based dispersion barrier” is made of, and the migration test results it provides do not fully address chemical additives, the presence of potential impurities or non-intentionally added substances.

Example brand and productGoodLife Bio cup

Why we like this product: As far as we can tell, Sovereign is the only major manufacturer of this particular type of cup.

Want to learn more about our research for this product? Check out our resources and references page.