Guide to Take-Away Packaging: Environmental Impact

Updated: Aug 20, 2019

A nice little reminder of what the impacts on the environment are of single-use take-away packaging... just before you head out to lunch today.


This is a run down of the efficiency and impact of various disposable packaging options - we already know that reusable packaging is the most environmentally friendly option. But this guide should help you to make better choices when you really cannot BYO (or barePack isn't available).

The rating goes from 5 devils ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ(most impactful) to 1 devil ๐Ÿ˜ˆ (least impactful). Please note these are rated in terms of how suitable they are for SINGLE-USE.


1. Styrofoam ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

Ubiquitous clamshell box for restaurant leftovers, hot-and-sour soup containers, coffee cups and various hawker foods.

Gawker foods to takeaway are typically served in polystyrene | michelinguide.com

Most research disclose that Styrofoam becomes a permanent part of our environment after we use it. Information on the health risks of styrene, which is intrinsic to the manufacture of polystyrene plastics and resins, can be found on the EPA website. It's also sadly one of the top container materials in Singapore because they are the cheapest of all types of disposable ware and cost two to three times less than alternatives. Because they break so easily, absorb foods and are unstable, they are not suitable for multiple usages. The local news: While many cities are passing laws that require restaurants to discontinue use of all Styro products or outright banned the use of such packaging, as has done Penang in Malaysia (to give a local example). Unfortunately for Singapore, it would appear that the excuse of incineration excuses us, which isn't true as much styrofoam escapes waste collection and never makes it to the incineration (without even mentioning that single-use products we burn is simply a waste of resources, even if we incinerate to generate energy).


2. Plastic containers ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

Deli salads, sandwich boxes, sushi takeaway, yogurt containers, sauce containers; big soda cups at convenience stores, bubble tea.

Boba is a local addiction and a daily plastic invasion | Credit: Misstamchiak.com

Plastic is made from petroleum, a resource in short supply, and we use 4-8% of all global oil for manufacturing plastics. In addition, many chemicals are used to produce plastic resins which serious health risks (the most infamous is BPA but alternatives from the same family such as BPS might not be better). Recycling helps a little (depending on the plastic type, identifiable by the number on the underside in a triangle it might or might not be recyclable), but too often plastics don't make it to the right recycling bin, are contaminated from food residue, and provided they do land at a recycling facility, we simply do not have the sufficient infrastructure to recycle the volumes we throw away. Finally, you should not re-use single-use plastics must because they were not designed for it: potentially harmful chemical compounds have been shown to โ€œmigrateโ€ from the plastic containers into water and food, particularly if youโ€™re microwaving the container or exposing it to changing temperatures.

The local news: Many countries or cities have imposed restrictions, taxes or bans for single-use plastic containers (and disposables in general). Singapore launched a BYO (bring-your-own) campaign and has seen a lot of efforts by the NEA (National Environment Agency) to curb plastics but nothing has been enforced long-term. A list of vendors give incentives for customers who BYO and many establishments are phasing out plastic straws and various disposables out of their own will to do better. We are on top of this rubbish at recycling; in 2018 we recycled 4% of all plastics, down 2% from the previous year.


Plastic Bags ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

(besides the supermarket of course) The bakery, fruit stalls at hawkers and food courts, wet markets; hot and cold cup carriers, kopi red-string bags

Plastic bags are the top ocean polluters (among 10 disposable items that represent together 43% of all marine litter). An estimated 100,000 marine animals are killed by single-use bags every year while they are used for an average of 12 minutes only (and a lot less when carrying a take-away from the hawker to the office here in Singapore). Plastic bags also deteriorate faster as they are thinner leaving a lot of micro-plastics we cannot collect. For this reason we put plastic bags high up on our danger ratings.

The local news: Like plastic containers, many countries have imposed a plastic bags band or tax but it hasn't been so successful in Singapore. While plastic bags are needed for our wet waste, there is a lot we can do to reduce kitchen waste and thus need a lot less bags for disposal.


3. Paper Bags ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ or ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

The bakery, the more conscious cafรฉs and bulk stores for dry foods

They're not so common in Singapore unless you visit bull food stores like The Source or Scoop Whilefoods | Source: goodeggs.com

While "natural", just like your toilet paper, there are bad and worse types of paper bags. Least bad could be mill broke paper (paper trimmings and scraps left at the paper mill); post-consumer waste paper (paper that left the mill but was never used); then pre-consumer waste paper (waste that comes from the manufacturing stage of paper products and never used); and finally sustainable forestry approved paper products. Recycled paper saves waste paper but after repeated recycling fibres become too short to make new paper. Recycled paper uses less water and less chemicals, but if item says anything less than 100%, then it contains virgin pulp. Virgin pulp Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) certified products follow guidelines meant to ensure good forestry practices, but this is contested by some when you consider how low a tree takes to mature enough to be cut down. We can make an exception for the world's fastest growing plant, bamboo, which also requires a lot less water than say oak and matures quickly making it a more renewable source. Bamboo absorbs CO2 and releases 35% more oxygen into the atmosphere than an equivalent stand of hardwood trees, requires no fertiliser, pesticide or herbicide and leaves no waste after harvesting (the roots remain for continued harvesting and every part of the plant is used). The local news: Paper bags really aren't as common and they won't get recycled when used for food due to contamination. If you use them for dry foods, keep them for re-use. You can also dry kitchen waste and then use the paper bag to throw away your trash instead of using plastics.


4. Cardboard Boxes ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ or ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

Some salad bars and cakes shops (the fancy types), pizza, noodle boxes, cupcake holders; cup holders, coffee cup sleeves.

You canโ€™t recycle pizza boxes in singapore but you sure can find recycled cardboard pizza boxes - is that the ultimate cardboard boxโ€™s dream? | Credit: reddit.com

Similar to paper, it depends on the source, and similarly, it can be composted if it has no plastic lining (so not paper cups for instance). We add here - but it's valid for paper also - that chlorine is often used, or bleach, which is often harmful to the environment, and chemicals emitted from the paper mills are greater than those coming from the paper itself. Fortunately they are easily recognisable by their white colour vs natural brown so you can make a choice just with your eyes. The local news: The problem with contamination is the same as above, so it cannot be recycled if it's had food on it. While in theory it could be composted, we don't have anywhere to take it for composting in Singapore unless you have your own composting system at home or your kids go to a local school that does it (and accepts that parents take advantage of it!).


5. Bioplastics ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

While they are indeed manufactured from starchy agricultural by-products (example from corn, potato etc., soy protein, cellulose and lactic acid), if they end their life anywhere other than composting industries, they cannot decompose, and in the ocean environment especially have the same negative impact as conventional plastics. They don't depend on fossil fuels for their raw material but use them for all the energy in manufacturing and transporting (acceptable for for long-term usage, but a waste for single-use). There's the possible concern that cultivating biomass for plastics involves pesticides and genetically modified crops.The bigger issue stems from confusing bioplastics with other plastics as they look very much the same which messes up the recycling of conventional plastics, but also the misconception that they are not recyclable or compostable and thus make their way to inappropriate general rubbish disposals, releasing toxins like methane, carbon dioxide and ozone (+ pesticides and fertilisers).

The local news: Accessibility to industrial composting facilities are very very limited - do we have any in Singapore for the public? Bioplastics are not new, in fact this article is over 11 years old, but it did raise the question of whether food sources were being diverted from consumption for packaging (vs only using by-products such as leaves or corn husks). An ethical issue when we know that upwards of 23,000 children in Singapore are malnourished. Bamboo fibre based bioplastic are probably the best source locally (and a great alternative for reusable plastics).



6. Aluminum Foil ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

Wrapping for your naan, burrito, Sambal fish

It is a natural resource and while abundant, not infinite, and requires energy to extract and process. It takes energy to extract and process the metal. And though aluminum is in abundant supply, no resource is infinite. Fortunately it can be melted and recast over and over without quality loss (unlike plastics), as long as there is a local recycling program for aluminium. If not, in landfills it will eventually oxidize, returning to aluminum oxide without the emission of gas or pollutants, also true if it ends up in nature. The local news: We recycle it well, provided it is again clean and not contaminated with food. Unlike paper you can at least rinse it and either reuse or dispose of in the recycling bins. So keep those burritos coming baby!




7. Inedible Containers Made from Actual Food

Banana leaves serving your Indian thali; bamboo leaf wrapped Zongzi; the corn husk wrapped around tamale.

Zongzi | Credit: saveur.com

We can't fault them - if they aren't used for holding food, they'd likely be in the bin already, so you've extended their usage and their life. Pretty neat. They're also entirely compostable (without the need for an industrial facility) and useful for cooking and transporting food.

The local news: Pretty awesome, banana leaves or bamboo leaves are common and local. Just make sure to refuse being given a disposable plate or plastic bag which vendors often give you even though you technically really don't need any. And make sure the strings find their way to a proper bin as they are really dangerous to wildlife (best bet is to put them inside other sealed trash items so they cannot escape).


9. Edible Containers

Ice cream cones and the Singapore ice-cream sandwich, lotus leaf wrapped Lo Mai Gai (Dim Sum), tortilla bowls; actual edible plates

If you eat it, or the pigeons do, what's not to love?

The local news: If itโ€™s the only thing thatโ€™s put in your hands, meaning there is no additional plates, it eliminates a lot of waste. The edible plate is pretty bland having tried it ourselves, and if it could have made better foods I guess that's the only downside.



And if banana leaves and bread for bags don't exist, then reusables are always the better alternative to single-use.

If you want to bring-your-own, the list is (almost) endless: from Mason jars (your last peanut butter or jam jar does the trick), Tupperwares, sturdy coffee mugs and tumblers, cloth bags for transporting dry foods (best seal them here in Singapore to keep them from humidity and pests), tin boxes.... There are few negatives: keep them clean and carry them around? and if that's still too much, well, we have your back ;)


Cove Photo by Marion Michele on Unsplash


#reusable #zerowastesingapore #zerowaste #bioplastic #sustainableliving #zerowasteguide


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