The convenience of takeout delivery is all too real. Busy day at work or school, weekend activities, late night cravings, there are so 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 takeout, and what they reveal.
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 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.
Takeout packaging: You want a burrito? Let me wrap that in foil for you. Here’s some plastic utensils and paper napkins wrapped in plastic to go along with your hand-held meal. Ok, now here are three packs of ketchup and hot sauce you didn’t ask for because you have condiments at home. Let me put that in a paper bag placed in a plastic bag for you… even though you are about to eat it.
Sustainable solutions: Reduce and reuse. Buy in bulk. Use bulk alternatives when on the go. Shop at restaurants that use sustainable alternatives like plant fibers for their 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 food itself, it’s the packaging. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food and food 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 carboard 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. I can see that every time I pull a plastic fork out of my food bag. 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 still derives from natural gas and petroleum. Most polymer plastics come in the food packaging you see regularly 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 is made from mined bauxite. Bauxite is most commonly found in countries like Australia, China, Guinea and Brazil. The process of smelting bauxite into the form of aluminum requires considerable energy and water use.
Paper and carboard manufacturing
Paper and carboard is made through a process that converts wood to pulp and shapes it for packaging. These materials are biodegradable/compostable, but the manufacturing process still emits some greenhouse gases.
By comparison to plastic and metal, it is a more sustainable form of packaging. Paper mills historically used a lot of water, but modern mills are able to 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 over and over again without risk of contamination. So in terms of reusability, glass is useful.
Mixing materials every purchase
Now imagine if you takeout with a medley of all these materials in your bag. You may use those materials for like 5 minutes before you throw it out. That’s a lot of raw materials and natural resources to protect your burrito in your 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 just simply 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 out 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 the environmental impact of food takeout: replace plastic packaging with the proper plant-based alternatives. Then, over time we can determine how to safely eliminate packaging altogether. 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 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.