The Anti-Styrofoam Brigade
C-store retailers beware. If the current political and regulatory trends continue, you may have to find an alternative packaging that doesn’t contain Styrofoam, and fast.
Because non-biodegradable garbage threatens more and more marine and coastal ecosystems as it continues to accumulate in the world’s oceans, California legislators have introduced a bill that would ban single-use Styrofoam packaging for takeout food statewide. The bill is intended to encourage the use of sustainable, recyclable, and biodegradable alternatives to Styrofoam.
Since California is the country’s most populous state, and since what happens there often has a way of happening in other states shortly thereafter, retailers have every reason to be concerned about the type of packaging they buy for takeout food use.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already acted on this recently limiting the use of Styrofoam in drinking water bottles because of its potential adverse effects that could cause cancer and neurological damage, a ruling that will only increase pressure against continuing to use it.
Ironically, the very properties of Styrofoam that make it efficient and cost effective for packaging material and lining safety helmets also make disposing of it difficult, said John R. Burke, president of Foodservice Packaging Institute Inc.
All plastics are petroleum-based, so putting them in landfills is just sticking energy in the ground, Burke noted. He added that one pound of polystyrene cups could produce as much as 19,000 BTUs, giving them a higher energy value than coal.
“Styrofoam cups are only about 5% plastic and 95% air. When they burn, they produce a small amount of ash and carbon dioxide,” Burke said.
Last November, McDonald’s reported that 82% of its packaging in its nine largest markets is now made from renewable materials. Increasingly, convenience store retailers are following Mickey D’s lead, seeking to capture a greater share of takeout sales as well as respect the earth with reliable, environmentally friendly packaging that won’t drive up the cost of takeout meals.
Historically, environmentally friendly packaging materials have been niche products, alternatives to the traditional paper, aluminum and plastic polymer products, said John Burke, president of Foodservice Packaging Institute Inc. (FPI).
“What we’ve seen, particularly over the last four or five years, is a movement of these products into the wider marketplace,” Burke said. “In the U.S. take-out market, I would describe this as pretty much of a West Coast phenomenon, and in terms of the overall marketplace, ‘green packaging’ is still more of a university foodservice type of thing, but the demand from consumers is there.”
Those considerations resonated with Jerrod McPherson, co-owner with Trent Lee of Fargo, N.D. Cheetah Marts. The chain is deeply committed to operating with the environment in mind.
Environmental Awareness Growing
Cheetah’s entire south-facing wall is glass, providing solar heat that augments the radiant floor heating. “The only thing we didn’t do was solar panels, because we ran over budget,” McPherson said. “We’re doing a lot of LEED platinum-rated worthy things, and have definitely made an environmental statement in our town.”
Most of the packaging Cheetah Mart currently uses is recyclable, with over 90% of the containers, including those for salad, soup and their very popular caramel rolls, made from recycled materials. “When it comes to adding packaging, there’s no question we’ll take a close look at renewables because it’s just the right thing to do,” McPherson said.
The company will have ample opportunity to buy additional food packaging once its sphere of influence increases and a planned drive-through is completed. “We sell a seven-inch caramel roll that’s three inches thick,” McPherson boasted. “Customers are already coming in and buying them in quantity for office meetings and other events, which requires larger packaging.”
Cheetah Marts will offer both breakfast and lunch menus at its drive-through, building on its marketing strategy as a mini food court that happens to sell gas. In addition to offering a Godfather’s Pizza Express, part of the store is devoted to a gourmet coffeehouse called The Daily Grind and offers about 50 different sandwiches made fresh daily in its deli case, which naturally require convenient packaging. The store also offers a soup and salad express bar where customers can build their own salads from a 12-foot long bar and choose from three fresh-made soups daily.
Though his company hasn’t gotten any requests for greener packaging from customers, as new ideas in earth friendly materials come up, it’s committed to examining its options, said Chad Prast, director of foodservice for Indianapolis-based Village Pantry.
“We haven’t made too many supply changes in the past year because resin was so expensive that everything was on the high end as far as cost,” Prast said. “Now that costs have come back down we’ll probably make more changes—-for instance, we’re looking at a more upscale deli bag.”
Last year, Village Pantry was just trying to hold the line on high packaging costs, and green wasn’t coming in cheaper. Additionally, when gas prices soared last year, costs for grain-based packaging were so high that it would almost have been impossible to make a margin, Prast noted. Now that costs are coming down he’s looking more closely at packaging alternatives.
“We’re also looking at using more recycled and readily biodegradable cardboard packaging such as doughnut boxes, some of which are made from 50% recycled materials,” Prast said.
The only major customer feedback Prast has received about packaging was when he added paper and Styrofoam cups for coffee and plastic and Styrofoam for cold drinks, offering his customers a choice of materials. “If we had a lot of customers asking for it, green packaging would be higher on the priority totem pole,” he said. “Even now, if a vendor comes in with one container that’s green and one that’s not and the costs are comparable, we would definitely go with the green.”
Burke, who described FPI as “material neutral,” said that people frequently assume biodegradable materials will biodegrade automatically, but that’s not so. “The irony of all this is that when you send biodegradable materials to a landfill, they often fail to biodegrade because most landfills are constructed to entomb garbage, protecting it from the heat, moisture and insects that would break it down,” he explained.
“We don’t promote one material over another and we don’t like it when the government tries to do that, either,” Burke said. “But there are much better ways of handling solid waste material than storing it for hundreds of years in a landfill.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has actually tried to facilitate biodegradability in landfills in order to harvest the methane gas that is produced when degradation occurs. “Plastics people make the argument that non-biodegradable materials are actually more cost-effective and better for the environment because they do not contribute to the methane and toxic runoff that landfills produce,” Burke said.
Moreover, packaging that uses the biopolymers and non-cellulose paper materials that constitute today’s green packaging is only green to a point, Burke noted. Unless the consumers who purchase the food those containers hold behave responsibly and recycle the packaging appropriately, retailers may be spending extra money for them for little or no environmental benefit.
“The challenge in foodservice packaging is that 70% of it goes out the front door. Where it goes after that is anybody’s guess,” Burke said. CSD