Cigarette butts might be the most common item of litter that’s discarded, but fast food packaging can’t be far behind. The nature of fast food – the fact it’s designed to be eaten on the go – means that wrappers, drink containers and disposable utensils need to be provided and are discarded after a single use. In terms of waste it’s extremely inefficient, and some of the materials used have also turned out to be problematic. Styrofoam boxes have been replaced with paper wraps by some of the large chains but they’re still widely used by smaller outlets; as well as using valuable petrochemicals to produce they don’t biodegrade and aren’t easy to recycle.
There are options for recycling Styrofoam; for example it can be chemically processed into a binder for high performance adhesives. Unfortunately this process isn’t widely used at the moment because it doesn’t offer any real cost advantages over alternative materials, so demand is low. Most other recycling programs are focused on industrial packing materials, such as foam peanuts, and don’t adapt readily to food packaging.
The priority for dealing with fast food waste has to be reducing the volume and persuading vendors to switch to more sustainable materials, and progress has been made with that. McDonalds, a pioneer of Styrofoam packaging, began switching to paper wraps and cardboard cartons as early as 1989. Many US cities have enforced local bans on the use of packaging that can’t be easily recycled, and similar insulated boxes made of biodegradable materials are now available (although they cost slightly more than the Styrofoam equivalents). However the current volume of waste has to be dealt with and it’s naturally desirable to recycle as much of it as possible.
While paper waste is generally less environmentally harmful than synthetic materials it can be a problem in the context of fast food packaging. Grease and other food residue tends to soak into the paper and many recycling programs won’t accept it; the result is it goes to landfill or for incineration. This is still better than landfilling Styrofoam but not ideal.
German chemical company BASF has now come up with a solution that would enable food packaging to be composted effectively, rather than disposing of it in landfill. It also uses up to 90 percent recycled materials in its manufacture. A problem with using recycled paper or cardboard for food applications has been that it’s usually contaminated with inks, which are potentially toxic. BASF have now developed a biodegradable polymer which can be used to coat recycled cardboard; this forms a food-safe barrier between the contents and packaging, preventing any contamination, but unlike earlier coatings can be composted along with the cardboard and food residue.
The new polymer is called Ecovio PS 1606 and it’s already qualified for both European and US standards. If it’s adopted on a large scale it could greatly reduce the amount of food packaging that ends up being buried or burned, and while it won’t solve the whole problem of fast food waste it would definitely be a major step in the right direction.