Foam containers, Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), or Styrofoam, has been a staple in the food service industry for decades. Renowned for its lightweight and insulating properties, EPS has been the go-to choice for everything from coffee cups to takeout containers. However, there have always been voices opposing EPS due to its environmental impact and the increasing push for sustainability within the industry. In 1988, the first U.S. ban on general polystyrene foam was enacted in Berkeley, California, and the tide has turned more widely against EPS in recent years as awareness and regulatory measures against single-use plastics have grown.


Understanding Foam(EPS) Containers

EPS is a type of plastic made from styrene monomers, which provides good insulation properties and is lightweight — key attributes that have made it popular for food packaging. It’s been used since the 1930s for insulation, packaging, and containers due to its ability to keep food warm or cold for extended periods. However, its convenience comes at a high cost to the environment.

First, it’s not easily recyclable nor widely recycled by material recovery facilities, often ending up in landfills where it can take hundreds of years to decompose. Furthermore, EPS is prone to breaking into small particles faster and releases toxic chemicals into the surrounding environment at a higher level, contributing to land and marine pollution. The material’s lightweight nature makes it a logistical challenge in waste management, as it’s bulky and costly to transport for recycling purposes. Additionally, EPS can easily become contaminated by water and grease, particularly in food service applications, rendering it non-recyclable once it has been used.


The Push Against EPS

Recognizing these environmental challenges, several states across the U.S., including Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Washington D.C., have initiated bans on the use of EPS containers in food service. In California, under the ongoing Extended Producer Responsibility Program (SB54), EPS will be banned in 2027 if EPS producers cannot demonstrate a recycling rate of at least 25% by 2025, and this baseline will increase to 65% by 2032. Some municipalities within certain states, such as San Diego, New York City and Washington D.C., have implemented their own bans on EPS food ware which aim to reduce pollution, encourage recycling, and push businesses towards more sustainable practices.


The Alternatives of EPS Containers:

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): Known for its clarity, strength, and recyclability, PET is a favorite in the food service industry for its ability to balance sustainability with practicality. PET is currently about 30% recyclable in the United States, making it one of the more sustainable options for plastic packaging. With the growing demand for the material, its recyclability has the potential to increase to 60% by 2030.
  • Polypropylene (PP): PP is valued for its heat resistance and durability, making it an excellent choice for containers intended for microwave use or for storing hot foods. In 2022, How2Recycle upgraded the recyclability level of PP to “Widely Recyclable” in the United States.
  • Aluminum Containers: Highly recyclable and efficient at retaining heat, aluminum is a good choice for hot foods and is often used for takeout and delivery services. One thing to note is that, single-use aluminum containers may have a greater environmental impact, because the exploitation and the producing process of the raw material typically uses more energy and generates more carbon footprint.
  • Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics: These bioplastics are produced from plant-based materials such as corn starch and sugarcane and are biodegradable under controlled industrial composting conditions. However, these materials are generally more expensive than PET & PP and cannot withstand heat, posing challenges in storage and when serving hot food. Additionally, if the composting conditions are not properly established and the material fails to decompose during the process, the entire batch of compost could be contaminated and end up in the landfill.


The Case for PET and PP Containers

In light of the drawbacks associated with EPS, PET and PP containers emerge as superior alternatives if your are looking for a more sustainable way to present your food items for several reasons:

  • Sustainability: PET and PP are more easily recyclable in contrast to EPS fitting into existing recycling streams more seamlessly. Their recyclability reduces the demand for virgin materials and lowers the carbon footprint and other sustainability measures associated with their production process.
  • Consumer Preference: Modern consumers are increasingly seeking out businesses that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. Switching to PET and PP packaging that incorporate recycled material can significantly improve a restaurant’s brand image and appeal to this growing demographic.
  • Durability and Safety: PET and PP containers offer enhanced durability and are better suited for a wider range of temperatures, making them more versatile for various food types. PP containers are particularly noted for their microwave safety, a significant advantage for takeout and delivery services.
  • Design Versatility: These materials offer greater flexibility in container design, allowing for innovative packaging solutions that can cater to specific menu items or enhance the presentation of food.
  • Regulatory Compliance: With the trend of EPS bans likely to continue, switching to PET and PP can help restaurants avoid future regulatory hurdles and potential fines.


Moving Forward

For businesses in the food service industry, transitioning from EPS to alternative containers such as PET and PP can be both environmentally responsible and strategically advantageous. While PET and PP are among the available options, it’s important to recognize that there are numerous alternatives for EPS, each with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Therefore, food service businesses should carefully evaluate your specific circumstances, considering factors like cost, regulatory requirements, and consumer preferences etc., before deciding on the most suitable material for your packaging needs.

Embracing sustainable packaging solutions positions food service businesses for long-term success in an increasingly eco-conscious marketplace, while also fostering innovation and differentiation within the industry.

Learn more about Direct Pack’s full circle process and sustainability initiatives here: Direct Pack Green Together.