Know Your Materials

Hitting the Trifecta

It’s hard for foodservice packaging to fulfill the demands of performance, recyclability and price. But a new liner material puts all three goals within reach.

The first duty of foodservice packaging is to protect the product—keep it hot or cold, fresh and appealing.

But protection is not the be-all and end-all. If it were, Big Macs would still come in EPS foam clamshells.

Packaging made from expanded polystyrene (EPS), popularly known as Styrofoam, once was ubiquitous in foodservice, for trays, boxes, bowls and, especially, beverage cups. It’s still in wide use, because its sturdiness and insulation ability, combined with its relatively low price, make it hard to beat.

But EPS packaging has suffered significant setbacks in the U.S. McDonald’s and other major fast food chains reduced or eliminated it years ago, and some 146 U.S. municipalities (97 of them in California) have ordinances restricting it in some way, according to a study in Plastics Recycling Update.  In 2016, California listed styrene as a chemical known to cause cancer.  Another problem is that EPS has become virtually the poster child for ecologically unfriendly packaging. It’s friable over time and buoyant, which makes for highly visible litter, and its post-consumer recycling rate is among the lowest of all major plastics.

When EPS foodservice packaging is phased out, the replacement is almost always fiber-based packaging with some sort of polymer protective lining. But if restaurants don’t want to use EPS on ecological grounds, they need to be sure that the replacement passes muster too—while still protecting the product.

Performance and environmental friendliness are two parts of what Todd Gasparik, director of business development for Smart Planet Technologies, calls the “trifecta” of packaging. The third is price; few restaurants are willing to pay a premium for packaging solely on ecological grounds.

Since paperboard and corrugated are more or less commodities, whether a package scores this trifecta will depend almost entirely on the material it’s coated with. And the major alternatives all have issues.

By far the most widely used coating for paperboard in quick-service restaurants is polyethylene (PE). It’s relatively cheap and effective. It keeps beverage cups from leaking, and it makes boxes and clamshells, as well as flexible wrapping, maintain temperature and resist moisture and grease.

But PE is problematic from a recycling standpoint. As detailed in the Coffee Talk article “A Dirty Secret” (March 2017), standard PE coatings make cups and other packaging unrecyclable, because the coating breaks into flakes that clog the recycling equipment. Most recyclers won’t even accept paper beverage cups; they have their automatic (or human) sorters remove them from the waste stream and send them to the landfill.

Another lining alternative is polymers derived from cornstarch or other plant-based materials, the most common of which is polylactic acid (PLA). This has the advantage of compostability and being bio-based. However, packaging lined with PLA underperforms in all three legs of the triad: it’s significantly more expensive than PE, doesn’t protect as well, and is hard to compost because it must be collected in segregated loads and taken to a dedicated industrial composting facility, of which few exist.  The plant based linings are just as difficult to recycle as PE-coated packaging, so for most communities, PLA lined packaging is also destined for landfill.

But there’s a relatively new alternative that hits all three legs of the trifecta.

EarthCoating, developed by Smart Planet Technologies, is a highly-mineralized resin barrier coating that is fully recyclable, performs perfectly and doesn’t carry a price premium. Consisting of 51% calcium carbonate and 49% polyethylene, it protects the fiber portion of the packaging as well as PE. But unlike PE, it can be recycled on the same recycling equipment that handles plain paper and other fiber packaging and products.

“From a material optimization standpoint, EarthCoating is the best choice,” Gasparik says. “Foodservice packaging of all types, with paper, paperboard or corrugated, can be lined with this coating. This includes beverage cups, which now are almost never recycled.”

Using packaging with EarthCoating has potential appeal for green-minded customers. However, communicating that benefit will take some effort; it’s not as readily apparent as substituting paperboard for EPS foam.

Gasparik suggests direct messaging, on the package and perhaps with in-store signage, touting the recyclability of the packaging. He notes that environmental claims like recyclability are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, which generally requires documentation. Smart Planet Technologies is willing and able to provide that documentation on demand.

“This coating has the potential to make the great majority of foodservice packaging as easily recyclable as plain paper is today,” he says. “That can only benefit restaurants, their customers and the planet as a whole.”

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