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What are the limits of compostable food packaging?

Modern food packaging needs to tick a lot of boxes to meet the high expectations of today’s consumers. Beyond aesthetics and its ability to preserve a meal until consumption, a growing number of customers expect takeaway packaging to be recyclable or compostable. As a result, traditional plastics are being replaced with renewable or environmentally friendly materials, and compostable food packaging is increasing in popularity. 

Compostable food containers are made from organic matter that can be broken down to produce nutrient-rich compost that leaves no environmentally damaging residue. Additionally, these containers are sturdy, affordable, and easy to produce, while showcasing a commitment to sustainability.

A recent survey found UK consumers tend to prefer compostable materials over recycled plastics, with 73% willing to pay more for a premium compostable alternative to recycled plastics. As more compostable containers enter the market, many wonder whether these organic materials have limitations when it comes to storing fast food. 

Breaking down compostable food packaging

In essence, compostable food packaging is made from environmentally friendly or renewable materials that break down in a manner that benefits the surrounding environment. Examples of the materials used to create compostable food packaging include: 

  • Wood pulp
  • Potato starch
  • Fungi 
  • Bagasse paper
  • Cotton
  • Palm leaves

By using natural ingredients, compostable food packaging can then return nutrients back into the ecosystem when it breaks down, rather than releasing toxins. Notably, compostable packaging is designed in such a way that it will only break down under very specific circumstances

This means it requires specific microbial conditions, the correct oxygen and moisture levels, and warmth, as well as a significant amount of time to decompose. When placed in commercial composting conditions, untreated compostable food packaging will typically degrade into carbon dioxide (CO2), water, and organic matter within 10 to 12 weeks. The compost produced can then be used for agricultural and horticultural purposes.

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What are the limits to compostable food packaging?

Recent market research suggests the global sales of compostable food service packaging will reach $28.8 billion by 2029, with the Asia-Pacific region the fastest growth area thanks to government policies to stem the tide of plastic pollution.

However, many wonder whether compostable packaging is a cure-all, and what limitations the material may have. For instance, some compostable bioplastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA), are unsuitable for use with foods at high temperatures. Takeaway containers made from PLA can contain foods of temperatures up to (140°F) (60°C), but if placed in a hotter environment, they may melt.

More so, PLA has a higher permeability than other plastics, which means moisture and oxygen are likely to go through it more easily than other plastics. This often results in faster food spoilage, which is why PLA is not recommended for long-term food storage applications.

Bagasse paper, on the other hand, is able to withstand temperatures of up to 248°F (120°C), making it suitable for both hot and cold products. Additionally, it can be put in the freezer and the microwave, as it is water-resistant and suitable for greasy foods. 

It is important to note the majority of compostable food packaging must be disposed of at an industrial compost facility. This is because the process requires higher temperatures and levels of humidity in order for the materials to break down correctly. 

Therefore, restaurant owners must determine whether their compostable takeout containers have been treated with a polylactic acid (PLA) coating. This is an environmentally friendly lining often used to prevent moisture from seeping into the packaging materials. While the coating is compostable, it requires a different set of circumstances in order to break down correctly. 

According to European Bioplastics standards, compostable materials should meet the following criteria. They must achieve biodegradation within six months, and the materials must disintegrate to less than 10% of their original mass. Additionally, the materials must have no negative effect on the composting process or leave any traces of heavy metals. Essentially, compostable materials must have no impact on the agronomic value of the final compost, or any toxic effect on plant growth.

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What to consider when investing in compostable food packaging

When using compostable food packaging, restaurants are recommended to consider the following:

Menu compatibility 

Before committing to compostable containers, restaurant owners must ensure their menu is compatible with these materials. They must determine whether each meal will remain in pristine condition through delivery until it reaches the customer. 

An effective way to do this is to note the maximum food temperature the fast food boxes can hold and ensure food does not exceed this temperature. The same can be said for environmental temperatures. For instance, restaurants in high humid areas may need to consider materials that can withstand the additional moisture. 

Size and shape

It is highly recommended restaurants invest in takeaway packaging that is shaped to the meals on offer. For instance, when offering sushi takeout, the box must be designed to showcase the delicacy of the dish without squashing the pieces together. 

Correct disposal instructions

To ensure compostable takeout containers contribute to a circular economy, restaurant owners can customise them to include disposal instructions. This should clearly tell customers whether the takeout box is home or industrial compostable. It is also recommended that restaurants consider using eco-friendly printing methods and sustainable inks in order to customise their sustainable takeaway packaging.

Compostable food packaging can help restaurants reduce their environmental impact and align more closely with a circular economy. In turn, this opens the brand’s appeal to a wider target market, specifically those who show concern for the effects of plastic on the environment. 

Something as small as your choice of takeout containers can have a significant impact on food quality and customer experience. Many operators forget a takeout experience may be the only contact a customer has with your restaurant, so capitalising on the opportunity is key to bringing them back for more business.

It is essential that, when designing custom sushi boxes, you have the customer in mind from start to finish, as they are likely to handle the packaging the most. In essence, the packaging should be small and lightweight, yet durable, and have the ability to protect the food while maintaining its aesthetic.