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Polystyrene Dinnerware Uses Less Energy and Water than Paper, Corn-Based Alternatives, Study Finds

The manufacture of common polystyrene cups, plates and sandwich containers uses significantly less energy and water than comparable paper-based or corn-based alternatives, according to a new study.

The study (pdf) for the Plastic Foodservice Packaging Group, by Franklin Associates, compares average-weight polystyrene foam, paperboard and corn-based (also known as polylactic) cups used in 16-ounce hot and 32-ounce cold drink receptacles, 9-inch dinner plates and “clamshell” sandwich containers.

Researchers modeled energy consumption, water use, solid waste (by weight and volume) and greenhouse gas emissions for each product resulting from production, transportation and disposal.

The study found that the manufacture of polystyrene foam products consumes significantly less energy than the alternatives – half as much as wax-coated paperboard cups and one-third as much as polylactic clamshells.

Polystyrene foam products use significantly less water than the alternatives – up to four times less than polylactic clamshells, according to the study.

Despite being corn-based, polylactic products do not biodegrade in landfills, according to the study.

In other news, California-based restaurant chain Baja Fresh Mexican Grill recently announced a nationwide rollout of recycled and recyclable paper and plastic bags, and biodegradable plates.

The company’s burrito wrapping materials now use only unbleached materials made from 100 percent recycled materials. For every 1,000 tons of unbleached paper produced for the firm’s burritos, over 6,000 trees and enough water to fill 15 swimming pools will be saved, the company says.

“By offering our products in biodegradable, recycled, and recyclable packaging, not only are we meeting the requests of our guests, but also those of the environment,” Baja Fresh president Charles Rink said. “We will continue to seek environmentally friendly solutions for additional products used in serving Baja Fresh menu items, and we look forward to the success of these and all of our future earth-friendly serving products in our restaurants.”

Baja Fresh is not the only restaurant chain to recently make an announcement on its switch to eco-friendly packaging.

In October last year, fast-food chain KFC announced the introduction of a reusable side container. The microwavable 100 percent polypropylene container and lid replaced the chain’s former single use expanded polystyrene version.

Research by the company found that 60 percent of consumers keep a reusable container for at least six weeks.

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3 thoughts on “Polystyrene Dinnerware Uses Less Energy and Water than Paper, Corn-Based Alternatives, Study Finds

  1. Well isn’t that nice of the plastic lobby to conduct a study that proves their packaging uses less energy and less water than others. Of course it does, that’s why they use it, simple economics. While the report is meant to strike back against claims that plastic production is unsustainable, polystyrene is still one of the major non-biodegradable pollutants of landfills and oceans. Not to mention the leaching of chemicals into the food that it contains.

  2. The study has a fatal flaw. It compared solid PLA articles vs. polystyrene foam. This is an apples to oranges comparison. Shame on Franklin Associates and shame on the media for not delving into the details. This study was also done for the Plastic Foodservice Packaging Group, whose membership looks like a “Who’s Who” of trash makers. Dart Container (they’re committed to PS even though there are alternatives like the new Ecotainer cup), Pactiv Corp. (has stopped their PLA foam program before it even started), and the list goes on and on. Committed to your sustainable life my rear end!

  3. The study has brought forward the advantages of polystyrene packaging materials. Food packaging requires extra care and concern as it is directly related to public health. Polystyrene products not only require less energy in production, but are also cheaper than their alternatives. Being light in weight and water resistant, they are the best possible material for packing edibles.

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