The Great Food Packaging Debate


April 24, 2012


Paper, plastic, corn-based, soy-based, plant-based, recycled, post-consumer recycled, biodegradable, or – heaven forbid! – Styrofoam. When choosing disposable food containers and utensils there are a dizzying array of material options. The newest trend in packaging is green. While we love this trend, there are actually quite a few considerations to what is the “most” eco-friendly option on the market. The short story is: post-consumer recycled products are what we recommend, but plant-based compostable items are another way to go if you participate in commercial composting.


For the longer story, here’s a primer on some of the options:


"Compostable" or "Biodegradable ":

While the literal meaning of “biodegradable” is the ability to be decomposed by bacteria and living organisms, “compostable” offers the addition of being able to decay in the soil to become fertilizers. Moreover, the industrial definition of “compostable” is the ability to biodegrade 90% within 45-120 days with no remaining toxic residues. So both "biodegradable" and "compostable" envelop similar meanings, and are used interchangeably in the eco-friendly products market. Many different materials are compostable, including most paper products (check with your commercial compost collector on acceptable materials) and specially labeled plant-based products (such as Greenware brand).


However, there are complications involved in using these “Eco-friendly” cups and food wares. While most believe that these materials can biodegrade easily on landfills or can be recycled, these compostable materials need to be sent to a commercial composting facility to allow it to properly decay back into the soil. By simply throwing them in the garbage, we are allowing methane (23 times more potent than carbon dioxide) production as they decompose in the anaerobic landfills. Tossing them in the recycling bin won’t do either, since they cannot be recycled and will harm the quality of the recyclable materials like plastic bottles. Moreover, the composting bins in your backyards would not be able to provide high enough of a temperature to properly and efficiently compost these materials. So the only effective means of disposal for these items is in a commercial composting facility. In other words, unless they are properly composted through a special hauler, these products aren’t worth it.


“Corn-based” or “plant-based”:

These items are most often labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable”, and may additionally boast labels that they’re “corn-based” or “plant-based”. This means that although they resemble plastics and function much like them, they’re made out of plant materials instead. According to the Greenware website, their corn-based product is made from a polymer, “PLA”, that is derived from dextrose fermented into lactic acid.


On the eco-friendly scale, these products have pluses and minuses. They are made from a renewable resource, plants, instead of a petroleum-based plastic. That’s a plus. But it’s also a minus, in that the crops used for this material are usually produced using petroleum-based fertilizers and chemicals, and with heavy machinery, so there is still quite a lot of petroleum going into their production. (Some worry that this is taking away from the world’s food stocks. According to Greenware’s website, it diverts very little corn from food markets, less than 0.25% of US production.) Plant-based products can be composted, a plus, but as we stated earlier they can only be composted on a commercial scale. This can be a minus as few of these products will find their way to an appropriate facility, and will cause harm when added to recycling or garbage streams. Another plus is that they are becoming more familiar to consumers, and are a visible sign of change – always helpful in encouraging everyday greener choices. This is one debate that has many detailed pluses and minuses, and will have to be settled by each individual for themselves.


“Recycled” or “Post-Consumer Recycled”:

These products are made from materials that would otherwise be discarded. According to, “If a product is labeled ‘recycled content,’ the material might have come from excess or damaged items generated during normal manufacturing processes--not collected through a local recycling program.” Alternatively, “Post-Consumer Recycled” products are made from materials collected in consumer recycling programs. Why is this an important distinction? It has to do with the success of recycling programs. These programs rely on having a robust market in which to sell the materials they collect. That market is driven by consumers buying products that are made of post-consumer recycled materials. So by purchasing post-consumer recycled, you are encouraging municipal recycling programs. While recycled is good, post-consumer recycled is better!


As for those who have already began using compostable products, rest assured that even by purchasing compostable/biodegradable products that might end up on the landfills, you are already taking a step in greening the environment, as you are selecting a product made from renewable rather than non-renewable sources. So even if you cannot properly compost them, it will still have less of an overall impact than fossil fuel-based materials. But overall, post consumer recycled product should be the way to go.