Styrofoam takeaway tubs, banned in some countries and cities including in the UK, are the best disposable takeaway container compared to aluminium and plastic tubs. When used only once.
Dr. Alejandro Gallego-Schmid and colleagues at the Tyndall Centre and School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at the University of Manchester have calculated the environmental impact of the three most common takeaway containers.
The study found that the styrofoam container was the best option among the disposable containers across all environmental impacts that were considered, including the carbon footprint. For example, the styrofoam container had 50% lower carbon footprint than aluminium and three times lower than the plastic. This is because of the lower amount of materials and energy used in the production of styrofoam compared to the other two types of container.
However, styrofoam containers are currently not recycled and cannot be considered a sustainable option. Recycling half of the containers currently in use, as envisaged by the EU recycling policy in 2025, would reduce their carbon footprint by a third. This would save 61,700 t CO2 eq. per year at the EU level, equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions generated annually by 55,000 cars. Most other impacts would be reduced by more than 20%.
Dr. Alejandro Gallego-Schmid, the lead author, explains, “Achieving this level of recycling of styrofoam containers is going to be challenging. Although technically possible and practiced at small scale in some countries, the main difficulties are related to collecting the containers and the associated costs.”
“Due to their lightness, the styrofoam containers can easily be blown away, contributing to urban and marine litter. So, despite their lower life cycle environmental impacts relative to the other containers, styrofoam containers cannot be considered a sustainable packaging option unless their end-of-life waste management can be improved significantly,” he added.
Plastic tubs are better, as long as you reuse them. The study also found that reusable Tupperware containers had a lower carbon footprint than disposable styrofoam when they were reused more than 18 times. This is despite the energy and water used for their cleaning. Disposable clear-plastic containers needed to be reused even fewer times – only four – to become better for the carbon footprint than the styrofoam