The convenience of takeout delivery is all too real. Busy day at work. Long day at school. Weekend activities, late-night cravings—there are many reasons to deliver your food. But the environmental impact of takeout food is undeniable.
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers behind taking Pad Thai to-go and what it reveals about consumer-driven climate solutions.
Hint: It’s not your fault.
In 2018, an estimated 2025 million takeout containers hit the European Union alone. That number has surely increased. Drizzled in oils and sauces, many of these millions of containers are deemed unrecyclable.
Busy? Try the speed read.
The scoop: Food takeout and delivery accounts for considerable waste. About 29% of all greenhouse emissions come from packaging. And food takeout uses a lot of packaging.
The problem w/ takeout packaging: *orders burrito* Let me wrap that in foil for you. Here are plastic utensils and paper napkins wrapped in plastic. Oh, and three packs of ketchup + hot sauce. And a paper bag was placed in a plastic bag. Salt and pepper packets no one’s eaten since the 90s? Take it. *eats with hand*
Facts and figures:
- Finding the best material is complicated. One study found that Polystyrene/EPS Foam had a 7-28% lower environmental impact than aluminum and a 25% to six times lower impact than Polypropylene.
- Plastic waste impacts over 700 marine species
Sustainable packaging solutions: Reduce and reuse. Recycling (in this context) is kinda BS. Buy in bulk. Use creative alternatives on the go. Shop at restaurants that use sustainable plant fibers or limited packaging. If you have a good relationship with your local food business, talk to them about affordable options.
Dig deeper → 3 min
The environmental problem with food takeout
The main issue with food takeout isn’t the food itself, it’s the packaging. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food and packaging materials make up almost half of all municipal solid waste.
Today, most food (takeout or not) comes in artificial packaging. But food to-go usually includes a plastic or aluminum wrap around the food, plus a Styrofoam or cardboard tray or container, placed in a paper bag, then finally placed in a larger plastic bag including paper napkins, straws, plastic containers for sauces or condiments and plastic utensils.
The impact of food packaging materials
It doesn’t take a genius to notice the environmental impact of food takeout is real. Every time I pull a plastic fork out of my food bag, I can see that. But let’s learn a little more about why these materials can be wasteful.
Newer forms of plastic use plant materials like corn, but most plastic today derives from natural gas and petroleum. Most polymer plastics come in the food packaging you regularly see for takeout and delivery.
US plastics production accounts for about 1% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US. The plastics production process also accounts for other negative spillover effects through its use of fossil fuels and harmful chemicals.
Most forms of aluminum are made from mined bauxite. Bauxite is most commonly found in Australia, China, Guinea, and Brazil. The process of smelting bauxite into the form of aluminum requires considerable energy and water use.
Paper and cardboard manufacturing
Paper and cardboard are made through a process that converts wood to pulp and shapes it for packaging. These materials are biodegradable/compostable, but manufacturing still emits some greenhouse gases.
Compared to plastic and metal, it is a more sustainable form of packaging. Paper mills historically used a lot of water, but modern mills can recycle most of the water back into the process.
Glass manufacturing requires melting feedstock material and burning natural gas & oil. This is an effective packaging option at the consumer level because glass is near impossible to permeate. That makes it harder for harmful chemicals to leak in.
Glass is not biodegradable and can last in the environment for hundreds of years. However, due to its stability, glass can be used repeatedly without risk of contamination. So in terms of reusability, glass is useful.
Mixing materials for every purchase
Imagine if you take out food with a medley of all these materials in your bag. You may use those materials for like 5 minutes before you throw them out. Many raw materials and natural resources protect your burrito in a simple car ride home.
Packaging materials… it’s complicated
So what’s the best material to use? The problem is… it’s complicated. One study found that Polystyrene/EPS Foam had a 7-28% lower environmental impact than aluminum and a 25% to six times lower impact than Polypropylene.
EPS foam is made up of 98% air, but it is still a form of Styrofoam. More on packaging solutions below.
Impact of food packaging on wildlife
If you are reading Sustainable Review, you know about ocean plastic. But it is important to reemphasize how plastic waste impacts over 700 marine species. Wildlife like Hawaiian monk seals and Pacific loggerhead sea turtles often confuse sea litter for jellyfish or get caught up in heavily littered areas.
To be fair, about half of the plastic in the ocean is made up of discarded fishing nets. The environmental impact of takeout food is considerable, but it is not the number one cause.
But there are still billions of pounds of plastic in the ocean. As food takeout and delivery become increasingly common in the post-covid era, it will become critical for food businesses to seek more sustainable packaging alternatives.
Environmental solutions for food takeout waste
In 2019, I interviewed TemperPack CEO Brian Powers about sustainable packaging. TemperPack is a sustainable packaging company that uses joot fiber from discarded coffee bags and other sustainable plant materials to create temperature-sensitive, cold-chain solutions for pharmaceutical and food delivery businesses.
Solutions exist. And they are becoming more affordable. The first step in minimizing takeout food’s environmental impact is to replace plastic packaging with proper plant-based alternatives. Then, over time we can determine how to eliminate packaging safely.
Why don’t we just use bioplastics for packaging? Well, existing non-plastic packaging is far from perfect.
For example, compostable and biodegradable bags are not equal. Compostable bags contain non-toxic materials, whereas biodegradable bags contain additives that break down the plastic faster.
Bioplastics are difficult to break down and require harsh scientific processes. If they end up in a landfill and don’t get the necessary air and light, they can emit methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.
Bottom line? This is not a consumer issue. Sure, reducing your food takeout would save a few animal lives and some trees. But ultimately, food businesses are responsible for the environmental impact of food takeout and delivery.
Food shops choose which materials to put in each bag and what packaging to use. And the costs are not nearly as high as they once were to choose a sustainable alternative.