Environmental impacts of takeaway food containers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

The consumption of takeaway food is increasing worldwide. Single-use containers used for takeaway food represent a significant source of waste and environmental impacts due to their low recyclability. Consequently, it is important to identify the best available alternatives and improvement opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts of fast-food containers. For these purposes, this study estimates and compares for the first time the life cycle impacts of three most widely-used types of takeaway container: aluminium, polypropylene and extruded polystyrene. These are also compared to reusable polypropylene containers. The findings suggest that single-use polypropylene containers are the worst option for seven out of 12 impacts considered, including global warming potential. They are followed by the aluminium alternative with five highest impacts, including depletion of ozone layer and human toxicity. Overall, extruded polystyrene containers have the lowest impacts due to the lower material and electricity requirements in their manufacture. They are also the best option when compared to reused takeaway polypropylene containers, unless the latter are reused 3-39 times. The number of uses needed for the reusable “Tupperware” polypropylene food savers is even higher, ranging from 16-208 times, with terrestrial ecotoxicity being always higher than for extruded polystyrene, regardless of the number of uses. However, extruded polystyrene containers are currently not recycled and cannot be considered a sustainable option. If they were recycled in accordance with the European Union 2025 policy on waste packaging, most of their impacts would be reduced by >18%, while also reducing littering and negative effects on marine organisms. Most of the impacts of the other two types of container would also be reduced (>20%) through increased recycling. Implementing the European Union 2025 policy on recycling of waste packaging would reduce all the impacts by 2%-60%, including a 33% reduction in global warming potential. Based on 2025 million takeaway containers used annually in the European Union, the latter would save 61,700 t CO2 eq./yr, equivalent to the emissions of 55,000 light-duty vehicles. The outcomes of this study will be of interest to packaging manufacturers, food outlets, policy makers and consumers.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)417-427
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Early online date24 Nov 2018
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 20 Feb 2019

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