Q: What is the greenest takeout container? Plastic containers? Cardboard? Definitely not plastic foam, right? Is there one takeout container that's the greenest of them all?
A: When it comes to takeout containers, there are definitely ones that are a cut above the rest and ones that fall long short of the pack.
You are correct in thinking that plastic foam is not as green as we would like. Plastic foam, which derives from Styrofoam which was created in the 1940s by Dow Chemicals, could be called the worst of all takeout containers, and yet surprisingly, it is still commonly used. Plastic foam does not biodegrade — ever. In other words, that foam cup that you're using to drink that vanilla latte will actually live longer than you will.
And get this, when plastic foam is weighed after being used to store hot food, it actually weighs less than it did originally (see: www.greenhome.com/info/news/41.shtml). That's because the chemicals from the container leech into the food or drink (making it lighter than before) and take up residence in the fat cells in your body.
Another common takeout container? Plastic. Like the kind you'd get at a salad bar or the kind used to hold your chicken soup from the local deli. On a scale of one to terrible, plastic is just okay. It is generally recyclable, but there are harmful chemicals used in the production of plastic, most notably BPA, that can sometimes leech their way into your food if you reuse the container too many times or microwave food in it. Seems like a catch-22, doesn't it? You're trying to do the planet good by reusing your plastics, but it turns out you're not doing your body any favors in the process.
What about cardboard containers? Most recycling programs don't accept cardboard that has been contaminated by food, but you can try and donate it to your town's composting program, where it will usually get accepted. Or, if you dare, try composting it yourself.
Not every takeout container is so terrible, though. More and more restaurants these days are using recycled paper and plastic containers, and I say kudos to them for doing so. Using recycled products takes less energy to make and saves trees. Not only that, it creates less pollution than using virgin products.
Finally, if you want to be really eco-friendly, try bringing your own container to the restaurant. (If you're going to the restaurant, that is, and not getting it delivered to your doorstep). If you have some aluminum foil or a small Tupperware container in your bag, you can pack up your leftovers in that. In fact, many coffee shops will gladly fill your mug from home with their own freshly brewed coffees.