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Going Green – and Going Crazy?

Just what do polystyrene, PET, polypropylene, compostable, biodegradable and recyclable mean anyway?

Are you considering an alternative to your Styrofoam food trays, but confused as to what the differences are among the various options?  If so, you’re not alone!  So, we’ve decided to answer the most frequently asked questions we receive – in the order we usually receive them.

What’s wrong with Styrofoam (polystyrene)?

The environmental impact

The health impact

For use as a meat tray, Syrofoam is inexpensive – yet the tray bowties easily and does not have the structural strength of alternatives.  Using Styrofoam results in a high shrink rate and impacts customer satisfaction due to cracking at the processor and breaking at the customer level.  One dropped tray holding three lbs. of meat, due to a tray’s breaking while holding it from a side, could financially equate to the loss of 70 trays.  Also, it’s very difficult to rework Styrofoam trays when you have a film or a meat styling problem, so they just get thrown away.  When you consider the total cost of ownership of Styrofoam, it is not as inexpensive as you may believe.

Which is more eco-friendly: compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable?

OK, so that was the easy part — it’s obvious that polystyrene has a negative impact on the environment and our health.  But which is the best alternative?  This is where it gets a little tricky; so let’s take a closer look at each one.

Biodegradable

Ah, it’s biodegradable, so it has to be good, right?  Not so fast.  Biodegradable means that it will degrade without the presence of oxygen, becoming water, CO2 and biomass.  HOWEVER, there is no time frame designated as to when this process needs to occur for it to be deemed biodegradable.

In addition, biodegradable plastics do not degrade under normal conditions.  In fact, they must be subjected to high temperatures for a long period of time to decompose.  Therefore, they do not decompose in the ocean and should be sent to large municipal composters; however, such facilities are few and far between, which is why there is little-to-no curbside service that will collect them.  And, believe it or not, biodegradable plastic is not recyclable and, if it mixes with standard plastic, the entire recycling feed will be compromised.

Comparable resins (bioplastics), made out of corn and starch, are not any better.  Your parents likely told you not to throw away your food.  Well, they were wise.  In short, throwing away such packaging drives the price of food through the roof, significantly impacting the world’s poor.  Growing corn for bioplastics means there is less land to grow corn for food – by some estimates 25% less.  In addition, corn is a huge feed crop for chickens and cows, costing farmers more money — and that cost is passed to consumers.  Corn also depletes the soil of all its nutrients every season, so farmers have to wait two years before replanting it in the same field. Therefore, biodegradable does not necessarily equate to sustainable.

Interestingly, California  has declared it’s against the law to include the words “biodegradable” and “compostable” on the label of a plastic product or a product with plastic packaging.  In addition, Walmart was recently forced to pay nearly $1M to settle a lawsuit labeling plastic bottles as biodegradable.

Compostable

Let’s move on to compostable.  Compostable means that products will decompose into CO2, biomass and water in roughly 90 days, similar to paper products.  Sounds fantastic in theory, but they need more energy to produce them, and they require oxygen to degrade; therefore, burying them in a landfill will not work effectively.  They are generally not taken curbside and generally require a high-heat commercial compost facility, which again is not readily available, to decompose.  Just ask the residents of Portland and other cities that have actually banned compostable plastics from their compostable facilities, and they will likely tell you their desire to be eco-friendly died on the vine.

What about wood fiber products?  Well, first consideration is global deforestation, which impacts the environment.  In addition, these packages use bonding agents (adhesives) to hold the slurry fibers together and assist with moisture; therefore, they are conventionally lined with thin polymer film (PE). This type of tray requires a combination of adhesives, oil-based polymers, and cellulose (wood fiber) in order for the film to adhere to the fiber.  The Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF), which handle recycling, cannot separate the film (which is recyclable) from the fiber (which is not recyclable).  And the composting facility, which is generally required for the fiber portion of the tray to degrade, cannot separate the paper side (which is compostable) from the film (which is not compostable).  The result: you now have a package that cannot be composted, biodegraded, or recycled.

Compostable materials are generally less durable, making them less desirable for food trays, which have to endure production machinery, transportation, and moisture.  They also cannot be produced in a clear color, which studies have proven is preferred by Millennials (soon to be the largest working / living population).

Recyclable

So, where does that leave us?  It leaves us with recycling.  Recycling converts the plastic into a reusable material.  It requires less energy than the alternatives and minimizes landfill waste and ocean pollution.  It also conserves natural resources, such as food, trees, and soil, etc.

Sure, recycling is dependent upon the individual to recycle, but so are the other options in order to be effective.  However, recycling is more easily accomplished, especially since consumers are readily familiar with simply throwing an item into a single-stream recycling bin.

In addition, recycling is a closed loop system.  If consumers buy a PET recyclable tray, not only are the recycling companies going to recycle the tray because of its value, but the industry will also recycle their industrial scrap PET and sell it on the open market or reuse the scrap directly back into their PET trays.

How is polypropylene (PP) different from (PET)?

So, if you’ve read this far, you may be inclined to consider a recycled product; however, many companies tout that they have recyclable food trays.  But do they?  Nothing confuses the consumer more than those little resin identification codes (known as recycle symbols) at the bottom of a plastic item.  And perhaps the two that are most confused are PP (number 5) and PET (number 1).  In short, they look alike and have similar uses.  But PET is considered more green because PP is “one of the least recycled post-consumer plastics.” In addition, there is no regulation that controls which polymers are added to PP, so it can be comprised of numerous resins, which contaminates the recycle stream. Whereas, PET is pure and clear as it is not easily mixed with other polymers, creating a pure recycle stream; it is also taken curbside, is easily handled by MRFs, is very energy-efficient, and utilizes less fuel and half the heat to produce.

Enter Clearly Clean’s PET trays

Clearly Clean did our research.  In addition to being more environmentally friendly, PET is durable and hygienic — and it provides a protective barrier to maintain product freshness.  Consequently, we opted to invent a food tray made from PET.  In fact, we invented the world’s first recyclable PET overwrap and MAP tray.  But we also recognized that processors and grocers alike required a smooth-edge solution to mitigate leakers and film tears.  Once again, our engineers rose to the challenge.

Fast forward to today.  We have analyzed the market, recognized what would be of most benefit to our planet, and proudly launched our products: the world’s only patented recyclable PET food trays with a smooth, rolled edge.

Our tagline is Clearly Clean: the clear choice for a clean environment.  Hopefully, this post helps make the choice even clearer.

About the Author:

Lisa Grimes
Marketing Director