A study released this week shows polystyrene packaging uses less energy and water in its production than corn-based or paper alternatives, mostly due to polystyrene’s lower weight.

Some key findings of the study (which was prepared for the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council) include:

  • Polystyrene foam products use significantly less energy than alternatives—half as much as wax-coated paper and one-third as much as corn-based plastic.
  • Polystyrene foam uses up to four times less water than corn-based plastics.
  • Polystyrene cups for hot drinks create less solid waste than paper cups with insulating sleeves
  • Polystyrene cups for cold drinks, plates and clamshells all create similar amounts or more solid waste than corn-based alternatives

There’s some uncertainty about which type of packaging produces more greenhouse gas after disposal: polystyrene products generate slightly more greenhouse gases than corn-based alternatives, but less than paperboard products if those paperboard products degrade to the maximum extent. However, the study points out that data on the decomposition of paper products like cups is lacking.

Given the results of this study, there are a few factors to take into account when choosing a type of take-out packaging:

  • Energy use during production versus solid waste creation once the package is thrown away; by and large, polystyrene uses less energy in its production but creates, on average, more solid waste
  • Initial cost, as alternatives to polystyrene tend to be more expensive
  • Customer perception, since studies show environmental sustainability and health concerns are rapidly becoming consumer priorities—which means the higher initial cost of compostable packaging may be offset by customers willing to pay slightly more for greener products

What do you think? Are compostable take-out containers worth the extra investment?  Do your customers prefer them—and, more importantly, would you lose customers by not having them? And if you’re using conventional packaging, are you doing other things to reduce your restaurant’s carbon footprint?

Join the conversation and leave a comment.

Image credit: Kai Hendry