Recyclable takeaway containers would save the greenhouse gas emissions of 55,000 cars

As a new study highlights that 2025 million takeaway-food containers per year are being used in the European Union (EU) alone, scientists are warning that more should be done to tackle the growing environmental impact.

The global takeaway food market is growing fast, with a projected value of over £80 billion in 2020. With an estimated 2025 million takeaway-food containers used per year in the EU alone, the ability to recycle these containers could reduce equivalent greenhouse gas emissions generated annually by 55,000 cars.

These are the findings of a pioneering new study conducted by the University of Manchester that looked at aluminium, polystyrene (styrofoam) and polypropylene (clear plastic) containers compared to reusable plastic containers.

It found that whilst styrofoam containers have the lowest carbon footprint – 50 per cent lower than aluminium containers and three times lower than their plastic counterparts – they cannot be considered a sustainable packaging as they are not recycled at a mass level and often end up in landfill.

The study used life cycle assessment to estimate the impacts of containers, taking into account their manufacture, use and end-of-life waste management, according to a statement. Altogether, the research team investigated 12 different environmental impacts, including climate change, depletion of natural resources and marine ecotoxicity.

Based on the findings, the researchers estimate that recycling half of the containers currently in use, as envisaged by the EU recycling policy for the year 2025, would reduce their carbon footprint by a third.

Lead author Alejandro Gallego-Schmid explained: “Achieving this level of recycling of styrofoam containers is going to be challenging. Although technically possible and practiced at small scale in some countries, the main difficulties are related to collecting the used containers and the associated costs.”

The study also found that reusable plastic containers had a lower carbon footprint than disposable styrofoam when they were reused more than 18 times. This is despite the energy and water used for their cleaning.

Project leader Adisa Azapagic concluded: ‘As consumers, we can play a significant role in reducing the environmental impacts of food packaging by reusing food containers as long as possible.”

Photo credit: Jonno_w/ CC BY-NC 2.0

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