In 1969, 270,000 tons of disposable plates and cups were used in the U.S (25). Today, Americans are generating 3.2 million tons of quick serve food packaging, less than 1% of which was recycled (25.5). In less than 30 years, the U.S. has increased its use of disposable plates and cups by about 700% (26).  It would take over 132,00 garbage trucks to carry this amount of packaging. To give you a sense of scale, if 132,000 garbage trucks were lined up bumper-to-bumper, they would stretch from Philadelphia to Chicago. 

Every year, $15 billion in food packaging is sold in US including nearly 39 billion pieces of disposable cutlery, more than 113 billion disposable cups and nearly 29 billion disposable plates (26.5). Currently, land-based litter contains 12% plastic and 34% paper, while marine litter contains 61% plastic and 11% paper. (26). Marine plastic pollution has threatened at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species. The most severe impacts are fatalities due to ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement (26.6).

Packaging represents roughly 30¢ of every dollar you spend on packaged goods and up to 60% of what you throw away (27). This means you pay twice: once for the packaging as part of the purchased product and again for disposal. National studies indicate that about one and a half pounds of trash are produced for each restaurant meal that is served. At fast food restaurants, approximately 200 pounds of waste are generated for every $1,000 in sales (27). 



·      Deforestation and land degradation due to products made from virgin tree fiber 

·      Land and water pollution due to certain bleaching agents (such as chlorine) 

·      Paper accounted for 28.2% of the municipal waste stream in 2009 (36). 


·      Use less paper by printing double-sided, using scratch paper, and only printing documents when absolutely necessary.

·      Purchase products with the highest post-consumer recycled content available.

·      Purchase non-bleached or chlorine-free paper products. 

Recycled Paper Products 

The term “recycled” can have many different meanings.  If a product is labeled as “30% post-consumer recycled material” it means that 30% of the materials were used by consumers, returned to a recycling facility, and remade into the product you now hold in your hand. 

The terms “recovered, pre-consumer,” or “post-industrial recycled material” refers to leftover materials from the manufacturing process that have not yet been used by consumers and generally would have been put back into the manufacturing process anyway.  

If a product says "Made of recycled material" chances are it is referring to the latter.  The minimum requirement for a product to be labeled "made of recycled material" is 40% pre-consumer waste, and only 10% post-consumer waste. The remaining 50% can be from virgin pulp (28). 

Every ton of 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper products you buy saves 12 trees, 1,196 gallons of water, 1,087 pounds of solid waste, 3 cubic yards of landfill space, 1,560 kilowatts of energy, 1,976 lbs. of greenhouse gases and 390 gallons of oil (2[G1] 9). 

Paper Bleaching 

That crisp sheet of white paper you hold in your hand most likely achieved its whiteness by chemical bleaching. Virgin wood pulp or recycled paper is bleached with chlorine and the reactions produce highly toxic substances. The most dangerous of these includes a family of 75 different chemical compounds known as dioxins and thousands of other chemicals called organochlorines. The U.S. EPA Dioxin Reassessment has found dioxins 300,000 times more potent as a carcinogen than DDT (a toxic pesticide that was banned in the U.S. in 1972) (30). 

Research has conclusively linked dioxins to cancer and severe reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxin is well known for its ability to damage the immune system and interfere with hormonal systems. The EPA believes that it is important to continue to limit emissions and human exposure to this class of chemicals in view of the very long biological and environmental persistence of these chemicals (31). 

A paper mill using chlorine chemistry will use between 40-50,000 gallons of fresh water for every ton of pulp and will release 40-50,000 gallons of water contaminated with persistent bio-accumulative toxins. A chlorine-free pulp mill uses 2,000 gallons of water per ton of pulp, and creates no persistent organic pollutants or bio-accumulative toxins (32). 

Other Paper Bleaching Terms

Unbleached: Paper that is either brown (“kraft”) or dyed during papermaking. This process avoids the environmental impact of certain bleaching processes. 

Processed Chlorine Free (PCF): Recycled paper that is whitened without the use of chlorine or chlorine derivatives. Common bleaching agents are hydrogen peroxide, oxygen, and ozone. Certification from the Chlorine Free Products Association identifies that the product also contains at least 30% post-consumer content and that the mill does not use old growth forest for any of the virgin pulp. 

Totally Chlorine Free (TCF): Virgin paper made without the use of chlorine or chlorine derivatives. The distinction between TCF and PCF is environmentally misleading. While TCF sounds better, PCF is more environmentally sound, since this term is reserved for recycled rather than virgin papers. Certification from the Chlorine Free Products Association identifies that the mill also does not use old growth forest for any of the virgin pulp. 

Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF): Paper that is whitened with chlorine compounds (such as chlorine dioxide). While this is a significantly cleaner process than chlorine gas bleaching, it still causes the formation of harmful organochlorides, which are released into the environment. ECF is not as safe as PCF or TCF processes. 

Chlorine Gas: This bleaching process is the most harmful for the environment and is largely responsible for the release of dioxins into the environment. Unfortunately, today many U.S. mills still use chlorine gas during the bleaching process.

Non-De-Inked: Recycled paper that has been processed without the removal of ink from the fiber. Eliminating this process saves energy and prevents hazardous waste. The finished product has small black ink specks within the paper. 

Additional Resources 

EPA – Dioxins, http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/CFM/nceaQFind.cfm?keyword=Dioxin 

Chlorine Free Products Association, http://www.chlorinefreeproducts.org  

Reach for Unbleached, http://www.rfu.org  

Conservatree, http://www.conservatree.com  

Environmental Defense,http://www.environmentaldefense.org/papercalculator 

Environmental Paper Network, http://www.environmentalpaper.org 


A plastics coding system for packaging was launched in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry. This system began in the U.S., and has since been adopted by industry groups in Australia, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, South Africa and Japan. Recycling facilities often accept only certain types of plastics, so it is important to know how to identify the seven different plastic codes. The code is normally printed on the bottom of plastic containers with one the following designs: 

#1 PET: Polyethylene Terephthalate is clear or slightly tinted and has a high melting point. Examples include soft drink bottles, peanut butter and salad dressing jars, sheeting for microwave food trays.

#2 HDPE: High Density Polyethylene is translucent or colored. Examples include milk jugs, juice bottles, water and detergent bottles, margarine tubs, bleach bottles, lotion, shampoo, and bubble bath bottles.

#3 Vinyl/PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride has a shiny surface and sinks in water. Examples include vegetable oil and shampoo bottles, laundry detergent containers, cooking oil bottles, window cleaning product containers, and fresh meat wrappers.

#4 LDPE: Low Density Polyethylene is soft, flexible, waxy, translucent, withstands solvents. Examples include margarine tubs, mustard bottles, and coffee can lids.

#5 PP: Polypropylene is hard but still flexible, waxy surface, translucent, withstands solvents. Examples include squeezable bottles, potato chip bags, drinking straws, microwave ware, plastic kettles, plastic garden settings, baby baths, plastic hinged lunch boxes.

#6 PS: Polystyrene is clear, glassy, rigid, brittle, opaque, semi-tough. Examples include plastic cutlery, imitation 'crystal glassware', low cost brittle toys. 

#7 OTHER: Includes all other resins and multi materials (e.g. laminates). Examples are polyamide, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate, PLA, polyurethane (PU) and phenolics. 

Polystyrene Foam / Styrofoam


·      Polystyrene (PS) foam is made from petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource. 

·      The production of PS foam causes air pollution and health hazards for workers. 

·      PS foam is not biodegradable, lasts in landfills for centuries and takes up more space than paper. 

·      Once in the environment, PS foam quickly crumbles into particles dangerous to wildlife. 

·      If incinerated by municipal waste facility, PS foam is reduced to toxic, airborne chemicals that cannot be effectively trapped by pollution control devices. 

·      PS foam may leach toxic chemicals into food, especially when heated in a microwave. 

·      PS foam that is manufactured with HCFC-22 is harmful to the ozone layer, though is less destructive than its chemical cousins CFC-11 and CFC-12 (33). 

·      PS foam is not accepted at most recycling facilities and its recycling rate is very low. 


·      Replace all polystyrene foam products with reusable products or less toxic disposables alternatives, such as recycled and unbleached paper, plant-based plastics, and tree-free fibers such as bagasse, kenaf or hemp. 

Polystyrene foam is a plastic made from petroleum; a non-renewable resource. Most people know polystyrene foam as Styrofoam, which is the trade name of a PS foam product used for housing insulation. Polystyrene foam is a lightweight material, about 95% air 

An environmental health concern associated with polystyrene is the danger associated with styrene, the basic building block of polystyrene. About 300,000 workers in over 20,000 facilities in the U.S. risk exposure to styrene (34). Acute health effects are generally irritation of the skin, eyes, upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal system. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system; symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, weakness, as well as minor effects on kidney function and blood can occur. A recent US government report has warned that exposure to styrene heightens the risk of cancer (34.5). A voluntary compliance program has been adopted by industries using styrene. The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) unsuccessfully tried to limit the amount of worker exposure to styrene to 50 parts per million - a federal court overturned the ruling in 1992 so the limit now stands at 100 parts per million (35). 

The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.  Toxic chemical byproducts are also released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. Styrene, a component of polystyrene, may leach into food from polystyrene food ware (especially when heated or microwaved). Styrene is a neurotoxin that impairs the central and peripheral nervous systems.  

Polystyrene foam packaging waste in the environment poses a threat to both terrestrial and marine wildlife. Wildlife is attracted to food residue on packaging, or in the case of marine animals, can mistake the floating plastic packaging for food. After it is consumed, polystyrene can choke animals or clog their digestive tracts. 

Frustrated with the increasing amount of un-recyclable food packaging waste in our marine environment, streets, storm drains and landfills, local governments across the nation are prohibiting the use of non-recyclable plastics such as PS foam in takeout disposable food packaging.  Many communities in the state of California have banned polystyrene takeout food packaging and the number is growing (37). Over the past 4 years, San Francisco, Mill Valley City, and Richmond have passed ordinances to prohibit the use of polystyrene foam disposable food service containers in their own cities (37.5). Combined with other recycling efforts, the prohibition movement has resulted in a 58% diversion rate in 2009. 

While the technology for recycling polystyrene is available, the market for recycling is very small. Most waste disposal companies in the U.S. do not have the infrastructure to recycle PS foam. Within the last decade, a network of polystyrene recycling plants have developed in the U.S., but few food service operations are linked to this system (38). 

Prior to 1988, some PS foam was made by using a gas containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). This chemical was proven to break down ozone in the lower atmosphere. When this issue came to light, polystyrene manufacturers negotiated a gradual phase-out of CFCs in the production process. However, some polystyrene foam is now manufactured with HCFC-22, which, though less destructive than its chemical cousins, CFC-11 and CFC-12, is still a greenhouse gas harmful to the ozone layer (33). 

Products for foodservice and other industries are now being manufactured from post-consumer recycled paper, bamboo, plant-based plastics, and other renewable resources. ​