Which Takeaway Container Is The Most Sustainable: Styrofoam Or Plastic?

Spoiler: it depends how many times you reuse them.

Next time you’re debating what takeaway to order, you might want to consider the packaging it comes in.

Around 2,025 million takeaway containers are used each year in the EU, according to The University of Manchester, and the most-used materials – including styrofoam and plastic – each have a negative impact on the environment.

Unfortunately, there’s not a clear-cut answer to which is the most sustainable – if you’re planning to chuck out your container after you’ve finished your food, styrofoam has the lowest environmental impact. But if you’re happy to reuse your containers (high five to you), things get a little more complicated.

coldsnowstorm via Getty Images

The study used a method called the “life cycle assessment” to estimate the impacts of containers on the environment. The team investigated 12 environmental impacts, including climate change, depletion of natural resources and marine ecotoxicity (how chemicals interact in the environment).

They looked at aluminium, polystyrene (styrofoam) and polypropylene (disposable clear plastic) containers. These were compared to reusable plastic containers, such as Tupperware.

The study found that the styrofoam container was the best option across all the impacts considered – it had 50% lower carbon footprint than aluminium and three times lower than the plastic. This is because the production of styrofoam requires a lower amount of materials and energy compared to the other two.

But before you pledge to only eat takeaways in styrofoam containers, there’s a catch: styrofoam containers aren’t widely recyclable and therefore can’t be considered a “sustainable packaging option”.

In comparison, disposable clear plastic containers are far more widely recyclable. The researchers said washing them out and reusing them just five times would lead to them having a lower carbon footprint overall.

More hardy Tupperware-style containers also had a lower carbon footprint than disposable styrofoam when they were reused more than 18 times – this was despite the energy and water used for their cleaning.

Professor Adisa Azapagic, the project leader, commented: “As consumers, we can play a significant role in reducing the environmental impacts of food packaging by reusing food containers as long as possible. Our study shows clearly that the longer we reuse them, the lower their impacts become over their extended lifetimes.”

Of course, the best outcome would be if we could recycle styrofoam containers more widely. The study estimates that recycling half of the styrofoam containers currently in use, as envisaged by the EU recycling policy for 2025, would reduce their carbon footprint by a third, saving the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions generated annually by 55,000 cars. However, the process comes with a hefty price tag, meaning councils are unlikely to adopt the method just yet.

So come on scientists, what are you waiting for? Please find a solution.