Phasing out plastics is an integral part of helping save the environment. Averting the adverse effects of climate change means cutting down on our single-use consumption and finding alternatives to plastics like styrofoam containers. Whether we use natural bio-benign foam from Chitin or bamboo, we need to find replacements.
Styrofoam slowly kills the planet and affects marine life; we must do something about it. Here are 7 eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam containers that every local business needs to use. These can help save the world, one food container at a time.
1. PLA-lined Paper
PLA-lined paper is one of the most sustainable options you can use for a food-safe alternative to styrofoam containers. PLA stands for polylactic acid, a thermoplastic polyester derived from fermented plant starch. These include corn, cassava, sugar beet pulp, sugarcane, and many more.
One advantage of PLA-lined paper is its resin-like matter, which works as a fantastic lining for paper cups and food containers. It can handle a temperature range of 32 to 185 F, which works for hot and cold food. Then again, there are several downsides to it if you’re looking to start more sustainable habits.
A common issue for PLA-lined paper is its low heat resistance and thermal conductivity, which means it crumples in scalding liquids like coffee and can be hot to the touch. For the average meal, PLA-lined containers should work as a solid alternative.
2. Poly-Coated Kraft Paper Container
Another alternative to styrofoam is poly-coated kraft paper containers. PCK paper containers use recycled kraft paper lined with different thermoplastics, usually polyethylene (PET) to create a waterproof and greaseproof container. This makes it an excellent pick for different kinds of food and beverages.
PCK paper is a common alternative to styrofoam due to its leak and grease resistance. It can hold up sauces, oils, and gravies and is commonly used for Asian and Chinese takeout. The container is quite breathable, too, allowing steam to vent out properly and prevent making food soggy.
One common issue for poly-coated kraft paper is it’s not very easy to recycle. The fused kraft paper and PET mean an extra step to separate both layers. Some PCK manufacturers use virgin pulp from non-sustainably-managed forests, which is unsuitable for the environment.
3. PET Plastic Containers
PET plastic containers are another great alternative to styrofoam. PET plastic is derived from plastic made from oil, but it’s much stronger, lightweight, and can handle more materials without the risk of breaks or crumples.
PET plastic containers are easier to handle and can handle as much as 302 F, and as cold as -94 F. It can hold soups, noodles, and hot/cold drinks. PET plastic can also be recycled up to four times, making it more environmentally friendly than styrofoam containers.
The downside of PET plastic containers is their shape and material. Unlike styrofoam containers, PET plastic containers are rigid and square, making them different for other style containers. Since they’re not very malleable, they’re not suitable for cakes, muffins, and cupcakes.
PET also comes from petroleum-based plastics, which come from fossil fuels. If we are looking to halt fossil fuel use, it’s best to move away from petroleum-derived products.
4. Sugarcane Bagasse Food Containers
Sugarcane bagasse is another sustainable material that’s an alternative to styrofoam. Sugarcane bagasse is a fiber of 90% cellulose and 10% lignin, the main structural component of wood. The fiber itself contains 2-3% lignin, which acts as a binder and creates structural strength.
Sugarcane bagasse is an ideal alternative to styrofoam because it’s biodegradable. It’s also compostable and, unlike Styrofoam, it’s completely non-toxic. Sugarcane bagasse is often used in paper products but can also be used as microwave and refrigerator-safe containers.
The downside for sugarcane bagasse is that it’s not heat resistant. The bagasse itself doesn’t burn, but the heat build-up inside can be a problem. Another issue with this material is the composting process, which requires composting in industrial processors to dispose of the material properly.
5. Bamboo Food Containers
Bamboo is an eco-friendly alternative to styrofoam containers. Bamboo is a grass, known as the fastest growing plant on earth, and can grow up to 150 cm a day. It is a durable, renewable, and biodegradable material with a natural resistance to rotting and pests.
You can use bamboo to line paper cups, food containers, and even utensils. Bamboo is organic, biodegradable, and renewable and can handle more weight than a standard styrofoam container. What makes bamboo less viable than the other options is its rigidity.
Bamboo is hard to shape, working only as a dry food container for baked goods, gourmet meals, and artisanal meals. Its lining is usually rice paper, so it can help degrease your food. It can be an expensive alternative and should only be used if you want your products’ exclusive look and feel.
6. Molded Pulp Fiber Containers
Molded pulp fiber containers are another sustainable option for styrofoam containers. These containers are made from low-density pulp fibers, usually plant fibers like rice, corn, wheat, and oat. The fiber is converted into pulp and then molded into containers.
The pulp fiber containers are eco-friendly for two reasons. First, the fiber is compostable and biodegradable, so it’s biodegradable when dumped in landfills. The containers are also made from plant fibers, which are more sustainable than petroleum-based materials.
The downside of molded pulp fiber containers is they have very poor liquid and heat resistance. These containers are not designed for hot foods or liquids and leak when heated. They tend to break apart when you try to add heavier contents to them.
7. Mineral-Filled Polypropylene Containers
Mineral-Filled polypropylene containers are another pick if you want to replace styrofoam containers. It’s made from polypropylene (PP), a plastic resin derived from petroleum, and uses 40% minerals in its composition, making it a safe choice for food.
Mineral-filled PP containers offer a good balance of insulation and weight, making them suitable for hot and cold foods. The lightweight design is also helpful for chefs who need to transport food from kitchen to table. It uses less plastic, too, as it contains minerals to fill it out.
The most common issue with mineral-filled PP containers is they’re still plastic. Since they’re not recyclable, you’re still catering towards heavy plastic use, and is the least sustainable option you have.
The Bottom Line
Styrofoam containers are harmful to the environment and must be replaced. Eco-friendly alternatives do exist, though they’re not as practical as styrofoam. Luckily, there are plenty of options, from PLA-lined paper to mineral-filled PP containers. All we have to do now is pick one and stick to using it until styrofoam containers are a thing of the past.