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Quiz Time! Foodservice Packaging and the Environment

With the school year winding down for many - if not over for some - it's time to take an environmental science quiz. Will you get a passing grade or flunk?!?

Is foodservice packaging a major contributor to landfills?
No! According to countless studies commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, paper and plastic foodservice packaging accounts for less than 2 percent of the country's municipal solid waste. FPI sponsored its own independent third party study, which found the number was slightly higher - just under 3 percent because we included a few additional items our members make, like foodservice packaging made from aluminum, meat trays and egg cartons). No matter which data point you use, foodservice packaging is very small contributor. Having said that, these items have a better option at the end of their use than landfills, which brings us to the next question:

Is foodservice packaging recyclable?
That's a tougher one to answer, but yes, foodservice packaging can be recycled. However, foodservice packaging is only being recycled in limited quantities for a variety of reasons, including lack of collection infrastructure; perceived lack of end markets for the recovered materials; concerns about contamination of the used packaging with food residue; and high transportation costs associated with lightweight/low density products. That said, FPI members are working independently and through industry initiatives like FPI's Paper Recovery Alliance and Plastics Recovery Group to increase recycling (and composting!) of foodservice packaging products. For more information, visit FPI's Stewardship pages.

Can foodservice packaging be made with recycled materials?
Yes! Foodservice packaging, like all food packaging, may include recycled content, as long as it still meets stringent federal regulations. Where there may be concern is impact on cost and performance (the two most important factors foodservice operators consider when selecting packaging). Use of recycled content may increase the cost of the package and may also impair the performance. No doubt there is much R&D going on behind the scenes to address both of these aspects of the packaging.

Is foodservice packaging a major contributor to litter?
Actually, very little, but any amount is too much. According to Keep America Beautiful, fast food packaging (the greatest component of all foodservice packaging) contributed less than six percent to total litter. And, yes, foodservice packaging does show up in Ocean Conservancy's top 10 items found during beach clean ups. Changing consumer behavior - since the vast majority of litter is the result of litterbugs - is a challenge that many of us in the broader packaging industry are trying to address. 

What's the most environmentally-friendly foodservice packaging?
That's a hard one to answer, as environmentally-friendly is in the eye of the beholder. Such a designation often pits one subjective value against another. Is it the material the product is made from? What happens to it after it's used? The fact is, all products have an environmental footprint that are unique and should be considered when making purchasing decisions.

Wouldn't requiring a switch to all compostable foodservice packaging solve our landfill and litter challenges?
Unfortunately, no. While we wholly support the use of compostable foodservice packaging - and many of our members manufacture these products - mandating the use of them is not the silver bullet many legislators and environmentalists are looking for. First, there is still a lack of composting facilities, especially those that accept foodservice packaging (the good news is that this number is growing, though!). [BTW, if you're looking for a composter who accepts foodservice packaging, be sure to check out] Second, litter is litter whether it is compostable or not. Someone asked me recently how long it would take a compostable foodservice packaging item to disappear if littered. I'm not sure, but what I do know is that these items take upwards of six months in a managed composting facility, so you can only imagine how much longer it would take road or beach side. It certainly won't just magically disappear.

So, how many did you get right? I hope all of them, which means that you've been listening. I feel like I'm always addressing the same questions, but since I continue to get the same questions over and over, there are lots of folks out there who still need to go back to Foodservice Packaging 101. In the meantime, enjoy summer break!

Posted By Lynn M. Dyer (President) | 6/11/2014 9:02:50 AM