In our convenience-obsessed culture, no matter how many articles about slow food are passed along online or liked on Facebook, fast and easy vittles are still king. And most everything fresh in supermarkets (think salsas, cheeses, fruit salad, hummous and yogurt) is kept in plastic containers, some of which are recyclable, and most of which are not. Even our cans are lined with plastic coatings – and now that they have been found to leach BPA into food and beverages (which is enough of a concern that even Coca Cola’s shareholders are demanding a change), I have been avoiding them, which ironically means more plastic containers. But what if there were an inexpensive, renewable alternative?
Photo via: Chicago Paper Tube Company
For the last year, I have been using wax paper sandwich bags (or these cool Baggu ones that are reusable for drier things) to carry my lunch on the train, and I always bake using parchment paper; I often wrap the baked goods in the paper afterwards. I also use paper bags instead of plastic if I have to have a disposable sack of some kind. But these are my personal choices, and though they matter, institutional, market-wide changes matter more.
Paper is made from a renewable resource and will eventually biodegrade; it’s also not made from oil and is lightweight. There is now a growing number of paper packages, and plastic/paper hybrids appearing on the scene. Paperlite packaging, one of many products made by Flextrus, based in Sweden, is used to keep deli products like cheese, or sliced meats fresh from transport through consumption. It’s made from a mixture of FSC-certified paper and plastic, and is thermoformable, which means it can take different shapes easily under heated conditions (important for flexibility) and allows it to be used in a number of shapes and sizes. It can be printed on, and can be lighter than a plastic alternative (meaning lower fuel costs). Most of the time, the top of the container is a thin plastic sheet which is sealed on top of the Paperlite base. While not biodegradable due to the plastic content, this is an interesting hybrid product that cuts down on oil consumption (used to make plastic, and also to transport heavier items).
Flextrus isn’t the only company working with molded paper; EcoPak, which is manufactured by Varden, in Melbourne, Australia, is an all-paper packaging that can be printed on and formed into any shape (think fast-food clamshells that are molded into a Shrek-head for example). This process was previously only available for molded plastics, but innovations in the process by which paper pulp is processed – egg cartons were the previous incarnation – mean that this could be a viable, and still cool, eco packaging that’s totally biodegradable.
I’ve spotted paper packaging elsewhere too: As reported in the NYTimes article “Now the Cosmetic Jar Matters Too,” Physician’s Formula’s Organic Wear makeup comes packaged in mostly-paper compacts and Organic Essence shea butter and lip balms come in biodegradable paper containers. Pangea Organics keeps its bar soaps in a hard paper box.
While we’re waiting for more of these alternatives to come to market, there are some that are already floating around. One of the stars of my composting tests has been Whole Foods’ To Go containers, which I continue to buy, throw in my compost and which break down, quickly and easily (they even start falling apart in the rain, on the way to the bin!). Whole Foods containers, made from a mixture of grasses, are a great alternative to plastic to-go containers, and I use them for short-term storage too. (For longer-term storing, I choose glass, which is biodegradable, recyclable and non-leaching.)
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)