Consumers today are constantly on the move, and carry-out, delivery and third party delivery services have become the norm for many restaurants and other foodservice establishments. As a result, disposable take-out packaging has become an essential component of operation.
There’s a wide variety of take out containers available, but with increasing bans and consumer demand for sustainable packaging you may be interested in a more eco friendly take out container option for your business. Despite changing legislation and consumer demand, budget constraints are always a concern.
Finding the right balance of price and sustainability can be challenging, but in this article we’ll go over the best sustainable, low-cost options to consider.
Keep in mind that if you are making the switch from a low-cost disposable takeout container like polystyrene or foam, any alternative is likely going to cost you more. But, understanding the types of low-cost sustainable to-go options will ensure you make the best choice for your business.
When trying to determine the best, low cost sustainable packaging material, the first consideration should revolve around how your customers will be disposing of it. Thus, it is important to understand the disposal options in your area which include recycling, composting, or trash disposal.
In most cases, customers will be taking the to-go packaging out of your facility. If your customers can not compost or recycle the container, you may not be using a sustainable option at all. For example, if you’re providing your customers with compostable bowls but there is no compost facility nearby (and they are just throwing it away in the trash bin), it is no longer a sustainable option.
Types of Eco-Friendly To-Go Containers
With regard to sustainable packaging, you will likely want to choose to-go foodservice packaging that is recyclable or compostable.
Recyclable to-go containers are products that can be reclaimed or reprocessed into new materials. Recyclable takeout containers are commonly made from plastic.
It is important to keep in mind that not all plastics are recyclable. For example, plastic number 6, more commonly known as polystyrene is not accepted for recycling. Plastics that are not recyclable will typically end up in landfills.
Pro Tip: The recycling code is typically found on the bottom of containers. It is a number surrounded by 3 arrows chasing each other in a triangle.
Related: What are the Different Plastic Recycling Codes? (Examples & Disposal)
Selecting a plastic recyclable takeout container that is easily accepted by curbside recyclers will increase the likelihood of it being reclaimed or reprocessed.
Compostable means the product will break down to organic materials in a defined period of time. Generally speaking, most composters would like the material they allow into their facilities to break down in fewer than 80 days, according to the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI).
However, many food packaging products are labeled “commercially compostable”. Compostable and commercially compostable are different.
When marked as commercially compostable, the product will still break down into organic materials in a specified period of time, but only in a commercial composting facility.
This means that if your patrons bring the takeout container on-the-go with them, they can not simply compost it in the backyard after use. It will not completely break down in a backyard compost. The product will also not break down in a landfill if it is discarded in the trash bin.
As a result, if there are no commercial composting facilities in your area or the majority of your customers are discarding the container in the trash, providing your customers with compostable products is not the most sustainable option.
Now that you have identified how your customers are handling the packaging after use, you are likely wondering what the least expensive recyclable or compostable take-out containers are.
Low Cost Recyclable Take Out Containers
Recyclable containers are the least expensive sustainable option, but may not be a clear signal to consumers that you are actively working on your sustainability efforts. Some consumers will equate any plastic as a less sustainable option when compared to compostable items.
Aluminum is a thin metal material that is used for containers. Aluminum is the least expensive of the options.
It is safe to be used in the oven and in the freezer. And, it has good grease and liquid control.
Aluminum is widely accepted for recycling.
Polypropylene, or PP, is the next least expensive restaurant to-go container. PP takeout containers are durable and lightweight. And, they are typically reusable.
Polypropylene or plastic number five is recyclable. It is becoming increasingly accepted for curbside recycling, but it may not be accepted at all recycling centers.
Always check with your local commercial hauler for product acceptance before recycling.
Pro Tip: Recycling centers often require containers to be free of any food debris.
PET take out containers are slightly more expensive than polypropylene containers but
PET or plastic number 1, is the most widely and commonly accepted plastic in recycling centers.
It is used for clear cups and containers. Although, it does not have a good heat tolerance.
Low Cost Compostable Take Out Containers
Compostable takeout containers are slightly more expensive than plastic to-go containers, but if correctly disposed of, will break down into organic materials.
If you’re in an area where consumers have the ability to compost or commercially compost, compostable containers are a great way to signal to your consumers that you are actively trying to lower your environmental footprint and meet rising sustainability demands.
Compostable take out containers look more environmentally friendly, allowing your customers to more easily see your efforts towards becoming more sustainable.
Paper Bakery Bags
The least expensive and most basic compostable take out option is the paper bag.
Although inexpensive, the use of a paper bag for take out meals is extremely limited to dry foods. Greasy or wet food items will leak through the bag or cause the bag to rip.
The second least expensive compostable option is bagasse.
Bagasse is made using environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. It is derived from the leftover byproducts of the sugar or wheat extraction processes.
It can be used for containers, plates, trays, and bowls.Many bagasse containers have poor steam control which results in soggy foods.
Warning: Although compostable, not all commercial composting facilities will accept bagasse. It must contain less than 100 ppm PFAS. To learn more about PFAS and how it affects food packaging compatibility, check out our article: Molded Fiber Food Packaging with PFAS: Is It Safe and Compostable?
Bagasse is typically tan or white in color, offering the most natural looking option. However, it is not as durable as a plastic or PLA container.
PLA Coated Paper or Clear PLA (Polylactic Acid)
PLA or polylactic acid is made from corn resin. Corn is a renewable resource that helps make PLA more sustainable than plastic, which is made from petroleum.
PLA is used as an impermeable liner in paper cups and containers to keep the paper from getting soggy or leaking. However, PLA lined items have poor heat transfer, causing the exterior of the container to become hot to the touch.
PLA can also be used to make clear compostable carry-out containers. This is the best compostable takeout option if you would like to showcase your food product to your customers.
Of the compostable and recyclable options, this is the most expensive sustainable option on our list, but it performs most similarly to traditional hard plastic to go containers.
PLA containers look and feel similar to plastic products, providing your customers with the least disruption in performance. But because they are so similar to plastic, they are often mistaken as plastic and recycled or discarded in the trash. PLA is not accepted for recycling.
PLA coated paper and Clear PLA containers should be composted after use. Check with the product manufacturer to identify whether the container should be commercially composted.
Pro Tip: Compostable items will typically say compostable somewhere on the container.
Investing in a take-out container that is more environmentally-friendly can increase customer satisfaction and lower your environmental footprint.
Always begin by understanding how your customers will be able to discard the packaging after use. Then choose the best low cost option that will perform similarly to what you currently use.
If you are choosing a recyclable take-out container, ensure that the container is widely accepted for recycling in your area. Compostable take-out containers are a great option if your patrons will be able to compost them or if needed, commercially compost them. Otherwise, it may not be the best choice.
Imperial Dade has a wide variety of sustainable options to meet your facility’s needs, budget, and demands. Whether you’re located in the United States, Puerto Rico, or the Caribbean, we’re able to supply your sustainable take-our food service needs.
To understand the benefits you can experience by adding eco-friendly to your business, contact an Imperial Dade Specialist today!