Sustainable food containers made from renewable, compostable materials have a minimal environmental impact. There are practical ways to reuse containers at home -- for example, glass can be washed and reused safely and indefinitely for storing and serving foods -- but institutions and restaurants that deal with food service and takeout face a different challenge. Innovative designs using renewable materials deliver eco-friendly, commercial food containers.
Corn, Bamboo and Deciduous Leaves
Meal service in restaurants and institutions requires containers for serving and storing food and packaging it for takeout. The Biodegradable Products Institute, a professional association that identifies and certifies compostable products, evaluates materials used for food containers that will break down quickly and completely in a composting facility. Renewable materials that the BPI approves for suitable, sustainable food containers include uncoated sugarcane-bagasse, molded bulrush fiber pulp, wheat fiber, compostable palm fiber, bamboo and reed by-products fiber, corn and fallen leaves. (See References 1)
Lightweighting reduces the waste that food containers generate, whether they are used for grocery store items or restaurant delivery meals. Lightweighting cuts the weight, by thickness or density, of the material used to create the food container. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, manufacturers can decrease the weight of the paper stock used for food containers and coat the thinner paper with wax or polyethylene. That stiffens the paper, protects the food, and keeps oils and moisture from leaking. Thinner containers break down faster than heavier stock when composted. (See References 4)
Look for Logos
Companies can and do make green claims for their products that may be hard to verify. One way to tell if food containers are sustainable -- that is, that they will break down as quickly and completely as other items in a professional composting facility -- is to look for the BPI Compostable logo. BPI's certification means that products biodegrade without leaving any particles that are expensive to remove from finished compost. Incomplete composting lowers the value of the finished product and makes recycling and composting more costly. BPI certification lets everyone in the recycling chain -- consumers, government officials, trash collectors and composters -- choose the most earth-friendly options. (See References 3)
College Cafeteria Initiatives
Colleges are greening their cafeteria operations, and sustainable food containers are part of the meal plan. At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the dining service gives students a free, reusable food container. Students can exchange the washable containers for clean ones each time they go to the dining hall. All to-go food taken away for late-night snacks or meals during exam-time crams travels in the reusable containers. With this initiative, the university cut back on use of tens of thousands of disposable containers each semester. (See References 2)
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .