Aluminium Boxes

Which Takeaway Container has the Smallest Environmental Footprint?

Do you ever feel a twinge of eco-guilt when you order a takeaway? You’re not alone. Each single-use container, whether recyclable or not, leaves an environmental footprint. Unfortunately, there’s no ‘perfect’ material. While one option might emit fewer greenhouse gases during production, it might require more water to manufacture or produce more waste at the end of its life. The main issue lies in our overreliance on these convenient yet environmentally costly single-use containers – we just use too many of them.  

But not all containers are created equal.  The Guardian recently provided a ranking of takeaway containers based on their environmental impact, listed from worst (#7) to best (#1). Check it out before you order your next takeaway.  

7. Compostable Food Service Items
Unlikely as it seems, compostable food service items are very problematic. It takes huge amounts of water, pesticides and energy to grow the plants from which bioplastic and fibre-based containers are made. A 2018 U.S. study found that compostable materials often had a higher environmental impact than their paper and plastic counterparts. Plus, these containers only break down in industrial composting plants which are few and far between in most countries. And these items look like they’re recyclable, so they often end up in the wrong bin, contaminating the waste stream. 

6. Certain Plastic and Cardboard Packaging
Some plastic containers can’t be recycled, such as those made of polystyrene (number 6). Containers made of cardboard coated with plastic, like drink cartons or single-use coffee cups are rarely recycled because of the difficulty of separating the two materials. Some soft plastics are recyclable but facilities to do so are limited in most countries.

5. Clear, Rigid Plastic Containers
Some of these may be recyclable – note the number on the bottom then check if your local council accepts it for recycling. But just because an item is recyclable doesn’t mean it is good for the environment. What’s important is how it was manufactured, and that can be difficult to determine. So avoid rigid plastic containers, particularly if they’re black. Most recycling systems can’t recognise black items and redirect them straight to landfill.

4. Recycled Containers
Choosing containers made from recycled materials is significantly less harmful and a better alternative than those made from new plastics or non-recyclable materials.

3. Aluminium Boxes
Lightweight and widely recycled, aluminium can be reused endlessly. However, be cautious of lids that combine paper and metal, as they are not recyclable.

2. Paper and Foil Wraps, Pizza Boxes
Light, small containers like sandwich wrappers or pizza boxes typically have a lower environmental impact. Interestingly, a small plastic sandwich wrapper might be less damaging than a larger recyclable container.

1. Reusable Containers

Reusable containers

Reusable items are the best choice. Despite being heavier and requiring washing, reusable containers like coffee cups and salad bowls generally produce fewer greenhouse gases and result in less pollution compared to disposable alternatives. 

What Can I Do? 

Clearly, the best way to reduce the environmental impact of your takeaway habit is to use reusable containers. Bring your own from home or opt for those provided by environmentally responsible cafes and takeaways. If that’s not possible, check the rankings above and make an eco-conscious choice each time you order takeaway. The planet will thank you.