Upon reading the question posed above, the often knee-jerk reaction is, why wouldn’t we replace our current packaging practices and create and adopt better environmentally friendly packaging? This usually conjures up the thought of switching from plastic and polystyrene foams (aka Styrofoam) based materials used by most restaurants, shippers, and other businesses, to ones made of paper or other biodegradable and/or eco-friendly materials. But is the answer really that easy? Unfortunately not. This is actually a fairly complex question which involves closely examining how each of the containers are produced and the benefit and drawback of the same. There are two main questions to be examined. The first focuses on the energy, costs, and carbon footprint to make the environmentally friendly packaging. And the second surrounds the ability to dispose of the container in an eco-friendly and cost effective manner.
Today, plastics and Styrofoam account for the majority of today’s “containers”. The invention of the first fully synthetic plastic, first known as Bakelite, was credited to Leo Baekeland in 1907. This new *space-age* material could be easily molded into virtually any shape and size, was both durable and flexible, and became the material of choice for the restaurant industry. Due to the low price to mass produce plastics, it’s low weight when compared to strength and durability, and low-carbon emissions to produce the product, it quickly became the dominant material-of-choice for containeration. Unfortunately a wonderful invention like plastic, doesn’t come without its drawbacks. According to environment.com, it takes roughly a 1,000 years for plastic to decompose. However according to The Decomposition of Waste in Landfills since plastic is a synthetic compound, it never truly decomposes, but simply breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic. And the polystyrene foam (which Dow Chemical coined as Styrofoam in 1947) containers used by Dunkin Donuts and other well-known restaurants to transport their drinks and meals, and also serves as the defacto packaging material to insulate TVs, appliances, and other items from damage during shipping, also does not decompose. But again, since it is made of 98% air and 2% chemicals, it has a low carbon producing footprint. Some restaurants, supermarkets, and other stores are now offering paper-based containers or even cloth bags as a replacement to plastic and styrofoam. Even plastic straws and cutlery are being replaced by their paper-based counterparts.
While on the surface this appears to be a suitable alternative to non-biodegradable materials such as the aforementioned choices, the energy, costs, and carbon footprint needed to produce these alternative containers, is much higher. According to Paper Vs. Plastic Packaging. , “Manufacturing paper products produces 3.5 times more greenhouse gases than producing plastic packaging. Harvesting trees also means that there are fewer trees to absorb greenhouse gases. Producing paper bags uses more than 25 times the amount of water consumed in the manufacturing of plastic bags and produces seven times more solid waste.
We live in a capitalist society, where price dictates most facts of our life. Publicly traded companies are more often than not, motivated by profit rather than focusing on the long term effects on society and our ecology . It is very easy to simply say that companies should adopt environmentally friendly packaging, but first we need to define what is environmentally friendly packaging? While it is easy to point your finger at plastic and say that it is polluting our Earth, is it still the best environmentally friendly option?
Maybe the answer to the question lies with changing the process and not simply the packaging. Whenever possible, should consumers be responsible for supplying or purchasing reusable containers to drastically decrease the number of containers which need to be produced each year? Which simply end-up in landfills or floating in our oceans. As consumers now refill their reusable containers at Dunkin Donuts, will that trend also become commonplace for diners to supply their own glass or plastic containers for their “take-out and left-over” food and drink
Essay by: Connor M DiMuro
Arizona State University