Your food can't go everywhere exposed; it needs packaging. Unfortunately, much of that packaging takes massive amounts of energy to create and doesn't properly decompose. We've rated some common carriers on a scale from 1 (bad) to 5 (good).
Ubiquitous clamshells for restaurant leftovers, hot and sour soup containers, coffee cups at PTA meeting.
The bad news: All research shows that Styrofoam becomes a permanent part of our environment after we use it. Information on the health risks of Styrene, which is used in the production of polystyrene plastics and resins, can be found on the EPA Website.
The good news: Many cities are passing laws that require restaurants to discontinue use of all Styrofoam products. And there are more and more better options.
2. Plastic Containers
Soup and deli salad containers, yogurt pots, big soda cups at convenience stores, ice cream sundae dishes.
The bad news: Plastic is made from petroleum, a resource that's in short supply. Plus many of the chemicals used to produce plastic resins pose serious health risks. Recycling helps a little (check to see if your city accepts plastics, and what types), but there is still significant pollution in the production to consider.
The good news: Reducing and reusing can lower the quantity of plastics being produced. But you probably shouldn't reuse it more than a few times; potentially harmful chemical compounds have been shown to "migrate" from the plastic into your food, particularly if you're microwaving the container.
3. Paper or Plastic Bags
The grocery store, the farmer's market, the drug store, your favorite take-out lunch joint.
The bad news: Both are pretty environmentally unfriendly. There's a lot of technical information that needs to be weighed when coming up with a definitive answer to which is more green, including: recycling rates in your city, and pollution, waste, and energy used to create the bags themselves. When asked, "Paper or plastic?" The best answer is "I brought my own canvas bag."
The good news: Like plastic containers, plastic bags can be reused as garbage bags, lunch bags, etc. Since a tax was introduced in 2002, Ireland has seen a 95 percent reduction in its plastic bag use. Other cities are putting in place similar taxes or banning plastic bags altogether. Paper bags have a shorter life span, but can be recycled in many cities.
4. Cardboard boxes
Leftover hashbrowns from brunch, take-away salad bar from Whole Foods, Chinese take-out, birthday cake in the office breakroom.
The bad news: Many cities don't have a composting system that can take food-soiled paper products. A lot of paper products still contain chlorine or bleach, which can be harmful to the environment if they end up in landfills. More chemicals are emitted from the paper mills than from the actual paper.
The good news: Cardboard that has not been contaminated by food can be recycled along with other papers. (This is preferable, as it can be made into more paper.) But if you can't recycle because it's got food on it, many cities have composting programs that will take your dirty cardboard. Or give it away directly to farms, gardens, and landscaping companies if you've been doing it at home.
PLA bioplastics manufactured from starchy agricultural by-products, Bagasse plates made from plant fibers such as sugar cane, wheat, bamboo and rice based pulps, Spudware potato-based cutlery, and a growing number of brands of corn-based tableware.
The bad news: Most need special conditions and facilities to biodegrade or be composted in, and, like plastics, require energy and scarce resources to produce. When you mix bio-products in recycling systems it creates a sorting nightmare and can leave entire batches of recyclable plastic useless.
The good news: There is a vested consumer interest in seeing more alternatives to plastic, and better options are being introduced and adopted by restaurants at a rapid clip.
6. Aluminum Foil
Wrapping for your burrito, naan, falafel, roasted corn-on-the-cob.
The bad news: It takes energy to extract and process the metal. And although aluminum is in abundant supply, no resources are infinite.
The good news: Aluminum and its alloys can be melted and re-cast again and again. Check to see if your city's recycling program accepts it. At home, you can wash and reuse foil. If aluminum makes it to the landfill, the metal will eventually oxidize, returning to aluminum oxide without the emission of gas or pollutants.
7. Recycled Paper Products
Rating 4Some cardboard boxes for salads and leftovers, some napkins and paper towels that come with your take-away food.
The bad news: There is currently no labeling process to let consumers know how much of a product is actually recycled material. Ideally, it's made of 100% recycled paper, which means that no trees were cut down to make it; all the fibers came from recycled materials. Anything less than 100% means the non-recycled content comes from virgin trees.
The good news: Making recycled paper requires fewer chemicals than making non-recycled paper. It also saves energy, allows more landfill space, saves trees, and reduces pollution in the water and air.
8. Edible Containers Made From Food
The bread bowl your chowder comes in, ice cream cone, tortilla bowl for taco salad.
The bad news: An edible container may come on a paper plate or other disposable product, therefore negating the benefit of using food to hold food.
The good news: If it's the only thing that's put in your hands, it eliminates a lot of waste. If you can't finish it all, the pigeons will.
9. Inedible Containers Made From Food
Rating 5Banana leaves holding your Dim Sum rice item or Indian thali, cornhusk wrapped around your tamale.
The bad news: As with the edible container, an extra plate or bowl may be given out for serving or transporting.
The good news: They're entirely compostable and non-polluting, and they can be used both to cook and transport food.
10. Bring Your Own...(BYO)
Canvas bags at grocery stores, Mason jars at some microbreweries and tea salons, coffee mug at local java house, your own Tupperware at the salad bar.
The bad news: There are few negatives. Just remember: It's got to be very clean if you're going to ask a stranger to handle it.
The good news: Many grocery stores offer discounts for bringing your own bag. There's no waste. You feel good about yourself. It's fun.
- Lexy, courtesy of Chow.com
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