Styrofoam takeaway tubs, banned in some countries and cities including in the UK, are the best disposable takeaway container compared to aluminium and plastic tubs. When used only once.

Dr. Alejandro Gallego-Schmid and colleagues at the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester have calculated the environmental impact of the three most common takeaway containers.

The study found that the styrofoam container was the best option among the disposable containers across all environmental impacts that were considered, including the carbon footprint. For example, the styrofoam container had 50% lower carbon footprint than aluminium and three times lower than the plastic. This is because of the lower amount of materials and energy used in the production of styrofoam compared to the other two types of container.

Dr Alejandro Gallego-Schmid, the lead author, explains: 

‘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 containers and the associated costs.

He added:

‘Due to their lightness, the styrofoam containers can easily be blown away, contributing to urban and marine litter. So, despite their lower life cycle environmental impacts relative to the other containers, styrofoam containers cannot be considered a sustainable packaging option unless their end-of-life waste management can be improved significantly.’

Plastic tubs are better, as long as you reuse them. The study also found that reusable Tupperware 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. Disposable clear-plastic containers needed to be reused even fewer times – only four – to become better for the carbon footprint than the styrofoam

They found that styrofoam uses the least energy in its production. Measured in energy, plastic tubs are second worst due landfilling. Aluminium is the worst due to extracting and refining.

Tupperware/using your own container is better than any takeaway container

Plastic tubs are better, as long as you reuse them. The study also found that reusable Tupperware 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. Disposable clear-plastic containers needed to be reused even fewer times – only four – to become better for the carbon footprint than the styrofoam

They found that styrofoam uses the least energy in its production. Measured in energy, plastic tubs are second worst due landfilling. Aluminium is the worst due to extracting and refining.

The European Parliament has recently approved a ban on single-use plastic. Styrofoam containers are banned in India, China, Taiwan and cities in the U.S. and the UK.

The food delivery and takeaway food market is predicted as $102 billion by 2020 globally. The top five countries in the EU with the most takeaway food are the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, forecasted at 1916 million servings by 2025.

Recycling half of the containers currently in use would reduce their carbon footprint by a third, as envisaged by the EU recycling policy for the year 2025. This is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions each year from 55,000 cars.

Their research also shows, as you might expect, that reusing your own Tupperware container has the least environmental impact. Something to consider when ordering-in during your next Saturday night Netflix binge. What food do you fancy, and what container it comes in. Enjoy.


 Written for the Tyndall Centre