On July 1st, Seattle banned single-use food packaging. Restaurants in the city are now required to use recyclable or compostable packaging and provide bins for customers to dispose of the material. The city hopes it will save 6,000 tons of food packaging waste from being deposited in a landfill and produce compost it can sell for gardens and landscaping.
This new legislation highlights the growing impact that packaging -- which represents about 65% of household garbage and 33% of the refuse in an average landfill -- is having on the environment. With recycling, composting and switching to reusable containers, packaging waste can be greatly diminished. Check out our list of the worst packaging offenders and what alternatives you can use to reduce their environmental impact.
1,460,000 tons of polystyrene foam were deposited in landfills in the United States in 2006
Also known as Styrofoam, polystyrene foam is the worst of the packaging offenders. It's made of non-renewable petroleum and once manufactured, it's not biodegradable. As soon as polystyrene is contaminated by food (like crumbs or grease from your french fries) it is no longer recyclable, and very few recycling facilities accept it even when it's clean.
Polystyrene is also hazardous to human health. It contains the neurotoxins styrene and benzene, which are widely accepted to be carcinogens. These toxins can leach into food that's acidic, warm, alcoholic or oily and into the environment after exposure to rain and other weather. Many cities, like Portland, San Francisco and Freeport, Maine, have banned polystyrene both because of the threats it poses to human and environmental health and because it can choke wildlife when swallowed.
Alternatives include biodegradable food containers (if you promise to compost them yourself) and reusable mugs.
3,570,000 tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were deposited in landfills in the United States in 2008
Plastic bags are on the hot list for environmental offenders. They take a long time to biodegrade and threaten marine wildlife if not disposed of properly. A lot of cities have banned plastic bags or require stores to charge 5 cents per bag in an effort to cut down on use.
Alternatives include reusable bags made from cloth or recycled materials and biodegradable bags.
There is a large demand for recycled PET fiber, and fewer greenhouse gasses are released in the production of PET plastic bottles than in the production of aluminum and glass bottles. You have to recycle (or reuse) the bottles to make it count, though!
Alternatives include reusable bottles.
780,000 tons of plastic cups and plates were deposited in landfills in 2008
Plastic plates, cups and other tableware are typically #6 plastic, and are accepted at many recycling facilities.* Still, most plastic disposable tableware ends up in landfills.
Alternatives include reusable tableware and utensils.
13,210,000 tons of paperboard containers and paper bags were deposited in landfills in the United States in 2008
Paperboard is largely made out of recyclable material, and is generally recyclable itself if it isn't contaminated by food or water. Still, it's always better to avoid single-use containers even if you're going to recycle them. Upcycling paperboard by making it into something else is another green option!
Alternatives include reusable containers.
1,160,000 tons of aluminum foil and cans were deposited in landfills in the United States in 2008
Aluminum is the most widely used material for beer and soft drink containers. Aluminum is a valuable material for recycling; it only takes six weeks to go through the recycling loop and it saves 92% of the energy necessary to make new from bauxite ore. It's hard to avoid aluminum containers for individually packaged beverages, so make sure they get recycled!
Alternatives include reusable BPA-free plastic, steel or aluminum bottles.
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