Monday, April 12, 2010

Corntainers: Sustainable Food Packaging

We live for takeout. When I talk about we, I mean North American culture in particular, although many cultures around the world offer delicious takeout options. In North America, the grab and go meal is standard. Brown bag lunches? No way. For many, restaurant fair is an almost-daily occurrence. Americans eat out four to five times per week. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they have a sit-down meal. It may mean that they grab a sandwich or a salad from the nearest deli. All of this eating out has an ecological impact. The disposal of packaged takeout food is a very real environmental issue, and much of this packaging is not even recyclable.

In the eighties, the world was focused on Styrofoam. The substance was blamed for damaged to the ozone layer, the layer that protects people from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Today, there’s been a gradual phase-out of the CFCs in this packaging, but its production still uses precious petroleum resources and produces waste. Then there was plastic. Clear plastic takeout packaging is light and flexible, washable and recyclable. But plastic is a non-renewable resource, even if it is recycled. Finally, there is paper. Paper products seem to be a logical choice for takeout. This packaging is lightweight and recyclable. However, given that they are contaminated with our oily food waste, we haven’t quite mastered a way to recycle these paper products. They’re renewable, but they’re not ideal.

Into the muddy mix of takeout packaging comes the corntainer. No, that isn’t a typo. It’s a container made out of corn. Imagine waving fields of green corn. Imagine 54,000 bottles. The Corntainer Corporation can make that many bottles from a single acre of corn. Not bad, and definitely annually renewable. Corntainers are popular at our local Whole Foods, the site of many pilgrimages for those who wish to buy sustainable. They look like plastic, so you can see the food inside. However, they compost like corn, sort of.

The sort of is the catch. Corntainers do need to be returned to the store for processing in a commercial compost. While it makes sense to save your packaging until your next takeout purchase, this does make the corntainer less convenient than other recyclable packaging options. Grab and go meals, wash and drop recycling are easier than making a special trip to the store to compost your container. Corntainers strive to be ethical and sustainable. The company was designed to reduce the use of petroleum. Although corntainers are an odd variation on the cash crop, the company does donate to organic farming associations, supporting local agriculture.

What do you think? Are corntainers the next generation of sustainable packaging, or are they a passing trend?


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