Green Takeouts

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An average American eats 127 takeout meals a year, up from 72 in 1984. As a result the number of coffee cups Americans throw out each year would circle the globe 55 times. Most of it comes in plastic or paper.


A Huge Part of Our Eating Habits

Take-out food forms a huge part of our eating habits, especially for students and city dwellers in general. Whether it’s holiday meals, picnics, tailgate parties, or just a busy day, takeaway foods are a runaway success. Even if you are the greatest of cooks, takeout days of the week are really special.

Unfortunately the packaging for most of these foods require massive amount of energy to create. Plastic and Styrofoam disposables are made from petroleum based chemicals and additives. Petroleum causes pollution and toxicity during production and transportation and is also increasingly becoming scarce. Styrofoam and plastic do not degrade and persist in the environment for hundreds of years, causing further pollution and toxicity. Paper disposables made from "virgin" wood fiber, further deplete our forests, upsetting invaluable ecosystem.

They all Refuse to Leave the Environment

Soup containers, coffee cups and restaurant leftovers use Styrofoam. Soup, deli salad and yoghurt containers, big soda cups at convenience stores, ice cream sundae dishes, all have plastic in common. Paper coffee cups, and the paper take-out containers, also use a petroleum-based plastic coating to make them waterproof. Research has shown that after use Styrofoam as well as plastics refuse to leave our environment. The aluminum foil which wraps your burrito, naan, falafel, roasted corn on the cob takes a lot of energy to extract and process the metal. Your favorite takeout lunch joint, the drugstore, the grocery store also use environmentally unfriendly material like paper or plastic bags. Your birthday cakes come to you in cardboard boxes. So do Chinese takeouts.

These plastic cups and take-out containers end up in the landfill for centuries to come (a polystyrene cup has an expected lifetime of over 500 years). They are made from non-renewable petrochemicals, and styrene, a key ingredient of polystyrene, a suspected carcinogen and known hazardous substance.


  • 970, 000 tons of paper cups and plates were discarded in 2003. This works out to 64 billion paper cups or plates if we approximate 15 grams weight for each cup or plate
  • 710 thousand tons of Styrofoam plates and cups (or 73 billion cups or plates using 10 grams weight for each cup or plate) are thrown away every year in US
  • A total of 3,810 thousand tons of plastic containers and bottles were thrown away in 2003, or 190 billion considering 20 grams for each container
  • Apart from these 8000 thousand tons of trash bags, grocery bags and other plastic materials like trays, utensils, clam shells, caps and other plastic packaging items were discarded in 2003.

The Reduce and Reuse Option

One of the options is to ‘reduce and reuse’ as much as you can. But in frequent reuse harmful chemical compounds have been shown to “migrate” from the plastic into your food, particularly during microwaving. But both plastic containers and paper bags can be reused as garbage bags, lunch bags, etc. Cardboard boxes can be recycled if not contaminated with food. But many cities also have composting programs that will take your dirty cardboard. Aluminum and its alloys can be melted and recast again and again.

Green Takeouts Led by Corn and Sugar

Efforts, though small, are being taken for a larger transformation to zero-waste green takeouts led by corn and sugar. Cost is one of the major barriers to this transformation, but the price gap is expected to narrow with the rising oil prices.

Biodegradable Packaging

Biodegradable food service packaging, a sustainable alternative to the Styrofoam, plastic and paper products, are made from sugarcane fiber, corn and potato. These are readily renewable and take less energy to manufacture. As they are not made from toxic or pollution causing sources they can be safely composted.

Scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service have shown how wheat starch can be used to make biodegradable containers, cups, bowls and plates for your takeout meals. Such items are already being made out of corn and potato starch.

Sugarcane is also used for making biodegradable food containers. Once the juice is extracted from sugarcane the remaining fiber waste is molded at high pressure and temperature into plates, bowls, cups, take out containers, trays etc. Starch from corn, potato, tapioca, soybeans etc. is used to make disposable eating utensils, bags, cold cups, drinking straws, etc, products which are traditionally made from plastic and Styrofoam.

See some of these products in Plastic , Products and Biodegradable Store


Using eco-friendly and biodegradable packaging materials is the best way to reduce rising levels of waste in landfills. Which particular packaging option to use depends upon the purpose it is going to be used for. Here are the traits of some of the most popular biodegradable food packaging options. Sugarcane fiber or “Bagasse”

  • Composts in 30-90 days
  • Safe for use in Microwave and freezer safe
  • Handles hot liquids up to 190 degrees F. May sweat with hot foods
  • Sturdy and strong. No plastic or wax lining
  • It is sterilized and sanitized
  • Tree-friendly.

Corn, potato, tapioca, soybeans

  • Composts or bio-degrades in 90-180 days
  • Breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, fiber
  • Leaves no toxic residue
  • Compostable but not recyclable
  • Corn starch based products are heat resistant from120 -200 degrees F

depending on manufacturer

  • Potato and tapioca starch based products are heat resistant to 220 degrees F

Paper Hot Cups with 100% corn liner

  • No plastic petroleum based liner
  • Performs identically to their non compostable hot cups
  • Compostable
  • Paper is sustainably harvested and elemental chlorine-free

But though bio-compostables offers better environmental sustainability, they are not a solution to the throw-away culture. Furthermore, even bio-compostables (especially bio-plastics) may take a long time to degrade in landfills. It is advisable to use non-disposable products.

Cutlery from potatoes Cutlery made from Potatoes] s as strong and heat resistant as plastic cutlery. It also degrades in just 180 days as against an average of 500 years for plastics.


  • How Green Is Your Takeaway Container?
  • Sugar Cane Fiber (Bagasse) Products
  • take-out trash
  • Upcycling: Un-Disposable Food Containers

See Also