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Polystyrene foam, sometimes called styrofoam, has been used for over 50 years. Since the 1970s, it has been the industry standard in grocery stores for meat trays. Not only is it inexpensive, but this packaging helps keep the meat fresh by absorbing moisture and protecting it from bacteria. However, the industry is beginning to shift away from polystyrene meat trays.  

As of this writing, polystyrene foam is banned in 11 states and hundreds of cities nationwide. Some of the bans, like the one in Delaware, do not take immediate effect to give users time to find viable alternatives.  

Expanded polystyrene bans are increasing because it can be harmful to the environment. One way it can damage the environment is through microplastics, which are small plastic particles that cannot break down. 

Microplastics are toxic the environment, poisoning ecosystems and making land uninhabitable for animals. They can also harm both humans and animals when ingested.

Not only is styrofoam not biodegradable or compostable, but it is also not recyclable.

Even without regulations, many users seek alternatives as their customers demand more sustainable practices. 

When the industry standard hasn’t been changed in 50 years, knowing where to begin looking for an alternative can be difficult. Let’s examine the other options and their pros and cons to help you determine which option will best suit your needs. 

When choosing an alternative to styrofoam meat trays, there are several different features that you will want to consider. 

  1. Sustainability
  2. Liners
  3. Temperature Tolerance
  4. Auto-Wrapping Compatibility
  5. Local Regulations 
  6. Merchandising
  7. Budget

Depending on your needs and goals, each of these factors will have different levels of importance. 

There are different ways to increase your sustainability. One may be to choose recyclable or compostable packaging. The decision on whether you choose to source recyclable or compostable packaging should actually depend on what is available in your area. If there are no recycling facilities for your rea, choosing recyclable packaging does not make sense as it will be discarded. Similarly, if there is not a commercial composting facility nearby, selecting a compostable material is not actually sustainable.

Many plastic items, such as those made with polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are recyclable. However, those made with polystyrene (PS) or low density polyethylene (LDPE) are not. 

Some foam meat tray alternative options have liners built in or have technology that removes the need for liners. You’ll need to factor in whether you need to purchase liners in addition to the trays you select. 

Most meat tray liners are made with Silica gel (a purified sand) or cellulose (a purified plant fiber). They are coated in a non-toxic, perforated plastic wrapping. Some compostable trays are made with polylactic acid (PLA) liners to ensure the entire product is compostable. All of these liners absorb the excess liquid from the meat to prevent the spread of bacteria.  

Temperature tolerance is the range of temperatures at which an item can be safely used. You may want to consider if the foam meat tray alternative you choose is freezer-safe. 

Different substrates have unique melting and freezing temperatures. Some containers may warp in heat or crack when frozen, and this can pose a risk to the end user. You’ll want to consider these temperature requirements when selecting your material. 

Some facilities use auto-wrapping equipment to wrap their meat trays. If you do, you’ll want to ensure that your foam meat tray alternative is compatible with auto-wrapping equipment. This means that trays must be rigid enough to prevent damage when wrapped. 

Materials that can break or bend in the machine should be avoided to prevent damage to the machine or improper seals. Fiber trays are softer than foam trays. If you try to wrap the fiber tray with the same settings as the foam tray, you may warp the fiber tray, for example.   

Local regulations are another important consideration. Some areas or facilities may not allow black plastic to be recycled, for example. 

Ensuring that your meat looks fresh and appealing to the customer is a valuable selling tool. Perhaps your customers prefer the stark contrast of the meat against a black background. On the other hand, the natural look of the fiber tray may be used to denote to customers a focus on sustainability.

Your budget is one of the most important factors. Alternatives to styrofoam meat trays are going to be more expensive than styrofoam meat trays. Some alternatives are more expensive than others. You’ll need to determine which trays fit within your budget or how you want to handle the additional increase in cost. 

There are two main substrate alternatives to styrofoam meat trays:

  1. Fiber Meat Trays
  2. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Plastic Meat Trays

Both substrates have pros and cons, and you’ll need to evaluate which option suits your needs.

Fiber meat trays are typically made from sugarcane or wheat byproducts but can be made from other renewable materials. They are more flexible than foam trays. Fiber meat trays are a great option if you want to focus on compostable sustainability or if you want a tray that is safe for both freezer and microwave use.  

You’ll want to ensure that you have a local composting facility nearby. Composting requires specific conditions to occur; without them, the material will not be composted. For the trays to be composted, liners must either be made from compostable material or removed.  

If you do not have a local composting facility, these may not be the right sustainable fit for you. 

Some fiber meat trays include liners, but these liners are not always compostable. Customers may have to remove the liners before composting the fiber meat tray. Other trays may have polylactic acid (PLA) liners, which is a plant-based plastic that is fully compostable. Check with the product manufacturer to determine the liner substrate and recyclability or compostability.

Fiber trays are a great option if you expect your customers to freeze and microwave them (typically to defrost the frozen meat). They are both freezer-safe and microwave-safe. 

It is possible to use these trays with auto-wrapping equipment. However, because they are more sensitive than styrofoam meat trays, you may need to adjust your wrapping machines to accommodate them. 

Your local regulations may restrict food containers with PFAS. Many manufacturers have now begun producing PFAS-free food containers to comply with these regulations, so you’ll want to ensure that you comply as well. 

Fiber meat trays are typically available in “natural” or “white” colors. Natural is typically a light brown color. If you like the white background of a styrofoam meat tray or want to avoid too much change for your customer, the white fiber tray option can be a great fit. The natural option may also be more appealing to your customers, as they think of it as the traditional color for compostable products. 

Fiber is probably the most budget-friendly option. However, your costs may increase if you upgrade to a compostable liner. 

PET plastic meat trays are available in black or clear options. These trays are lightweight, durable, and shatter resistant. These trays may be a better fit if you need something sturdier than fiber. 

PET plastic meat trays are recyclable. For an additional boost to sustainability, you can purchase trays made with recycled materials. With black PET plastic meat trays, you’ll need to ensure your local facility will accept them for recycling. 

There are also options with special honeycomb technology that locks in moisture to keep meat fresh, even when the tray is turned upside down. This feature removes the need for a liner and ultimately reduces waste. 

You may need to purchase an absorbency liner for your PET plastic meat trays, as you would with styrofoam meat trays. If you choose to use a tray with the honeycomb technology, you can avoid purchasing a liner.

You’ll need to be sure which option you are purchasing. If you need an absorbency liner but do not include one, your meat will not stay fresh very long. 

While PET is freezer-safe, it is not microwave-safe, much like the traditional foam meat tray. When placed in the microwave, the PET material can melt or warp. 

PET plastic meat trays are compatible with auto-wrapping equipment. They are more durable than fiber containers and can handle the force of an auto-wrapping machine.

Some recycling facilities will not allow black plastic materials to be recycled. This is because recycling facilities use light to identify what plastic is in each item. Because black absorbs light, they cannot be identified by the machines. 

One benefit of clear plastic is that the meat is all you see. Customers will have a more complete view of the meat product than they will with other trays. You may also like the stark contrast between the meat’s color and the black PET plastic meat trays. 

Clear PET plastic meat trays are typically slightly more expensive than fiber trays. Black PET plastic meat trays are slightly more expensive than clear PET plastic meat trays. But, by purchasing a honeycomb lined tray, you may reduce your cost by not purchasing a liner. The cost difference can significantly increase for nonstandard sizes. 

Final Thoughts 

Grocery stores and food processors face an increased need for alternative styrofoam meat trays. Some may need to change to comply with local regulations, while others are seeing an increased demand from their customers for sustainable practices. 

To determine whether fiber meat trays or PET plastic meat trays are a better option, you’ll need to evaluate your business needs and local regulations. Both options have different features that will suit some needs better than others. Perhaps you need a tray that is both freezer-safe and microwave-safe, so you need the fiber tray. On the other hand, you may need a fully recyclable container, so the clear PET plastic meat tray is the best option. 

If you still need help determining which foam meat tray alternative is the best for you, our Imperial Dade food packaging specialists are here to help. Connect with one of our experts today for a free evaluation of your needs. 

With a better understanding of your specific needs and access to meat trays of many sizes, shapes, and material types, our team can recommend the best alternatives to styrofoam meat trays for your business. 

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