I stopped ordering takeout from restaurants because of the huge amount of waste produced by takeout packaging.
Instead I brought along my own containers made of metal (e.g., www.to-goware.com), so when I eat out, I can take the leftovers home without feeling guilty and without chemicals leaching into my food.
Why the fuss about the packaging?
Polystyrene (sometimes called Styrofoam) is an inexpensive plastic made from petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource. In terms of energy consumption, greenhouse gas contribution and total environmental effect, the impact of polystyrene products is second only to aluminum.
Producing a polystyrene takeout container requires three to six times more energy than green alternatives such as compostable wheat straw, 100 percent recycled paperboard or bagasse products. Manufacturing polystyrene also takes far more water than materials used for compostable takeout packaging.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks manufacturing polystyrene fifth in terms of hazardous waste production. Both of the major chemicals used to produce expanded polystyrene, benzene (a known carcinogen) and styrene (a possible carcinogen and neurotoxin), may leach from polystyrene food containers, posing threats to human health, according to the EPA and Food and Drug Administration. Furthermore, polystyrene foam is often produced using HCFC (hydrochlorofluorocarbon) as a blowing agent. It is a potent greenhouse gas that depletes the ozone.
Plastic and polystyrene food containers are designed for immediate disposal. They have a useful lifespan of a few minutes or hours, yet take hundreds of years or more to break down in the environment.
Almost all of these single-use products end up in landfills, storm drains and oceans, where they continue to cause harm.
Plastic and polystyrene foam are lightweight, float, resist biodegradation and easily break into smaller pieces. These small pieces can be mistaken as food and ingested by marine wildlife, leading to reduced nutrient absorption and sometimes death. The chemical toxins ultimately find their way back into our diet through the food chain.
Is there any doubt that polystyrene is an abomination? From manufacturing through disposal, there is a host of significant harmful impacts from Styrofoam and plastic takeout products.
Yet they persist in common use, mostly because they are cheaper than alternatives. Polystyrene also performs slightly better at keeping foods cold or warm (though don't ask about leaching chemicals if you don't want to know).
While a ban on polystyrene in Los Altos is unlikely any time soon, the individual consumer does have some influence on businesses. I suggest we use our influence, if only by asking for alternatives and stating our preference, every single time we go into a store.
What might change if patron after patron requested compostable products? And occasionally walked out if there were no alternatives? At minimum, we can all work harder to bring our own cups and get a discount.
In Los Altos and surrounding communities, we can inform restaurants about the GreenTown Co-op, which makes it affordable to "Go Compostable!" See sidebar.
Kacey Fitzpatrick is executive director of GreenTown Los Altos, a local environmental non-profit organization and a principal of Avalon Enterprises Inc., offering sustainable architecture and consulting.