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Types of Eco-Friendly Food Packaging

Types of Eco-Friendly Food Packaging

Switching from single-use Styrofoam containers and plastic bags to more eco-friendly disposables is an easy way for your business to reduce its environmental impact while appealing to your customers. Whether you're looking for eco-friendly materials to align with your sustainable menu or to comply with new regulations, there is an eco-friendly food packaging solution for you!

Types of Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Styrofoam Take-Out Containers

From reusable options to recycled plastic and paper materials or completely plant-based materials, there is a greener option that will suit every business's needs.

Candy stored in PET plastic containers
Candy stored in PET plastic containers

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic is a strong, lightweight, and clear plastic that does not react with food products, making it a popular and cost-effective option for packaging foods and beverages. Plus, because of its ability to be recycled multiple times to create new products, PET plastic is an energy-efficient plastic and many food containers are often made with recycled content. 

Pros
  • Durable, shatterproof construction
  • Most are freezer safe, making them great for transporting cold foods
  • 100% recyclable; most easily and commonly recycled plastic
  • BPA-free
Cons
  • Derived from recycled petroleum-based plastics
An assortment of pretzels, fruit, vegetables, and hummus in a PLA plastic container
An assortment of pretzels, fruit, vegetables, and hummus in a PLA plastic container

PLA (polylactic acid) plastic is a thermoplastic typically made from the sugars in corn, cassava, or sugarcane. The FDA recognizes it as a food safe packaging material. It is typically used to create eco-friendly containers and cups for food and beverages, and it is also used as a liner in paper hot cups and containers to keep the paper from getting soggy.

Pros
  • Suitable for both hot and cold applications
  • Has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional plastics
  • BPA-free
Cons
  • Only compostable under industrial composting conditions
  • Not all PLA plastics are created equal – some crops used to create the plastics could have been grown with non-eco-friendly fertilizers and pesticides
  • Because they are chemically different, they must be properly recycled separate from traditional plastics; recyclable #7
Salad in a bagasse container
Salad in a bagasse container

Sugarcane / bagasse is a plant-based, tree-free, renewable material made from the waste of sugarcane plants leftover after the sugar has been extracted. This fibrous, pulpy material is used to create durable containers that appeal to environmentally conscious consumers and requires much less energy to produce than plastic products.

Pros
  • Suitable for both hot and cold applications
  • Sturdy enough to handle greasy foods
  • 100% biodegradable and compostable
  • Microwave and refrigerator safe
  • Unbleached design does not contain toxic dyes
Cons
  • Must be composted in a commercial composting facility
  • More costly than other foam alternatives
Food packaged in a kraft paper container
Food packaged in a kraft paper container

Poly-coated paper containers consist of environmentally friendly, recyclable kraft paper, which is made from renewable resources. They feature added durability from a poly coating to allow you to package a wider variety of foods in both hot and cold applications.

Pros
  • Leak- and grease-resistant, making them strong enough to hold up to sauces, gravies, and oils
  • Breathable to let steam and moisture out to prevent foods from getting soggy
  • Natural kraft color does not contain toxic dyes
  • Recyclable and typically contains recycled content
Cons
  • Poly coating makes the material harder to recycle
  • May not be sourced from sustainably managed forests
Chicken wings being packaged in a mineral-filled polypropylene container
Chicken wings being packaged in a mineral-filled polypropylene container

Mineral-filled polypropylene contains up to 40% natural mineral content, which effectively reduces the amount of plastic used to manufacture each container.

Pros
  • Durable, cut-resistant construction
  • Non-absorbent and leak-resistant, making them great for holding saucy foods
  • Suitable for both hot and cold applications
  • Microwaveable
  • Recyclable at the end of their service life
Cons
  • Still made with non-renewable plastic material
Sandwich and sides in a reusable polypropylene container
Sandwich and sides in a reusable polypropylene container

Reusable polypropylene take-out containers are a great way to cut down on disposable costs and reduce waste in universities, cafeterias, retirement communities, and other establishments where many of the same guests frequently return to dine. These can also be great for restaurants looking to implement a rewards program for loyal, conscious consumers. For example, customers can purchase a container upfront and with every time they exchange their used container for a clean one, they receive a discount on their meal.

Pros
  • 100% BPA-free
  • Microwave-safe and dishwasher-safe
  • Durable, break-resistant and leak-resistant design
  • Each container can be used for up to 1000 uses
  • Recyclable at the end of their service life
Cons
  • Higher initial cost than other eco-friendly options
  • Not a cost-effective option for businesses in more tourist-central locations or locations that mainly serve guests that aren’t likely to return frequently
Blackberries in a molded pulp fiber container
Blackberries in a molded pulp fiber container

Molded pulp is made from a variety of recycled raw materials, such as paper or cardboard. Pulp fiber is used to create egg and produce cartons, carryout containers, and foodservice trays.

Pros
  • Made from recycled content and renewable resources
  • Typically biodegradable and/or compostable
  • Typically do not contain chemical additives, coatings, or dyes
Cons
  • Not all molded pulp is created equal due to the properties of the different fibers used

Types of Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Plastic Bags

If you are choosing to make the switch to more eco-friendly containers for your take-out service, it is also wise to consider switching other items involved in your delivery system to keep your brand consistent to consumers. Several eco-friendly products are available to help you replace single-use plastic bags in your establishment for good.

Person putting packaged food in a paper bag
Person putting packaged food in a paper bag

Paper bags are a popular and durable eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags. They are made from renewable resources and may even be made from recycled paper, which will further improve your sustainability practices!

Pros
  • 100% biodegradable and recyclable. There are also certified compostable options available
  • Typically can withstand more pressure or weight than plastic bags
  • Often times can be reused
Cons
  • Typically more expensive than plastic bags
  • May not be sourced from sustainably managed forests
Reusable plastic bags holding baked goods
Reusable plastic bags holding baked goods

Reusable plastic bags are a great option for businesses looking to transition to more earth-friendly options without compromising on the durability or flexibility of traditional plastic bags. Plus, reusable plastic bags are easy to clean with a sanitary wipe.

Pros
  • Made with recyclable, durable HDPE or LDPE plastics
  • Often accepted in local curbside recycling programs
  • Biodegradable options
  • Cost-effective solution to single-use plastic bags
Cons
  • Still made with non-renewable plastic material
Person carrying a takeout box
Person carrying a takeout box

Skip the bags altogether with take-out boxes! Combining the convenience of carrying handles with the durability of a paperboard construction, these allow you cut down on the amount of disposable items needed for your take-out service. These boxes feature an easy-to-assemble, 1-piece design with a variety of closure styles to best fit your needs. Plus, they come in a variety of sizes and prints or solid colors to accommodate various foods on your menu. They are especially great for boxed lunches, fried foods, and baked goods.

Pros
  • Grease-resistant paperboard construction
  • Breathable to let steam and moisture out to prevent foods from getting soggy
  • Recyclable and compostable options
Cons
  • May not be sourced from sustainably managed forests

Why Switch to Styrofoam Alternatives?

Bare by Solo HC8SC-2050 Eco-Forward 8 inch x 8 inch x 2 5/8 inch Sugarcane / Bagasse Take-Out Container - 300/Case

Styrofoam is a trademarked material that is commonly used to classify all types of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam products. Polystyrene products are recyclable and are marked with the recyclable number "6". However, these products are very rarely actually recycled. Few local governments accept Styrofoam products in curbside recycling bins, and there are few recycling centers that accept and recycle Styrofoam because it can be a difficult and costly process. As a result, Styrofoam has become a major environmental problem for a few reasons:

  • Styrofoam is not biodegradable, meaning it does not naturally degrade over time, and it takes up an estimated 1/3 of the world's landfill space.
  • Oftentimes, polystyrene foam products will break down into smaller pieces that pollute the land and waters, which pose threats to wildlife and make cleanup efforts difficult.
  • Studies suggest that styrene, polystyrene foam's main ingredient, is likely a human carcinogen that can cause health problems with long-time exposure.

While Styrofoam, or foamed polystyrene, may be a cost-effective solution for your take-out service, it is it is largely detrimental to the environment. Many state and local governments have already proposed bans against single-use Styrofoam containers. As the mandates continue to be passed nationwide, it may be helpful to reduce your dependency on these products now to stay ahead of the trend. Thankfully, there are several eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives at a range of price points that can help reduce your business's carbon footprint and appeal to a wider customer base.

Eco-Friendly Terminology

In addition to understanding eco-friendly terms like biodegradable and compostable, many other "green" terms exist that are used to market eco-friendly products. Familiarize yourself with what they mean so that you can make the most informed purchase for your business.

Bioplastics: plastic materials that are produced from renewable, natural sources, which are often times plant-derived. The most common bioplastics are starch-based, which can be sourced from cornstarch or potato starch, and cellulose-based, which can be sourced from trees or straw.

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certified: wood- and paper-based products bearing the FSC label are sourced from responsibly managed forests. This certification ensures that forestry operations support long-term ecological, social, and economic objectives by setting strict, sustainable forest management standards.

FSC certified products will feature this label on the site.


Post-Consumer Recycled Content: materials that have completed their life cycle as a consumer item and are diverted from landfills to be used to create other items.

Pre-Consumer Recycled Content: materials that are reclaimed waste or excess products from a manufacturing process that are reused in later productions to create the same material. Pre-consumer recycled content can also be referred to as post-industrial recycled content.

Recycled Content: the total percentage of recycled material in a product, including pre-consumer and post-consumer materials.

Products made with recycled content will feature this certification on the site.

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