Top 6 Styrofoam Alternatives (Advantages & Disadvantages)
Plastic foam or polystyrene is one of the most widely used types of plastics due to its low cost, moldable qualities, and its capability to generate its lightweight counterpart EPS (Styrofoam). Its various desirable performance attributes such as heat tolerance and retention and it's low-cost, have made it the preferred takeout container for many restaurants and businesses. Until recently, that is.
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the negative effects of foam on the environment and human health, and are demanding more sustainable options. As a result, state and local bans and regulations have been enacted to reduce the use of polystyrene products.
Regulations, legislative pressures, customer demands, and the trend towards sustainability are requiring businesses that use Styrofoam foodservice products to source more sustainable options.
Check out this map on where polystyrene bans are taking place.
Under the bans, foodservice establishments may no longer sell, offer, or possess single-use foam food containers such as takeout clamshells, cups, plates, bowls, trays, etc.
As a business that serves food, you will need to find a suitable alternative for your to-go or leftover meals.
Choosing an alternative to Styrofoam foodservice packaging that is best for you comes with many considerations. Your foam alternative needs to be the right combination of price, performance, and appearance for your business.
In this blog, we will go over some of the advantages and disadvantages of 6 Styrofoam alternatives to help you choose the best one for your business.
What are Some of the Alternatives to Styrofoam Foodservice Products?
For some, making the switch away from Styrofoam will be an opportunity to become more sustainable. You’ll seek products that leave a smaller footprint on the earth. But for others, the best alternative will be the product that performs as similarly as possible or is simply closest in price to foam.
Keep in mind that the price of any alternative is likely going to be higher than Styrofoam, but that doesn’t mean that alternative substrates can’t bring efficiencies to your business. Products that are more environmentally friendly and can be reused, recycled, or composted at the end of life help reduce business's disposal fees and landfill waste.
Eco-Friendly Food Packaging Alternatives
Environmentally-conscious products are made from renewable materials and lead to a smaller footprint on the earth due to their low energy manufacturing processes and end-of-life compostability.
Eco-friendly materials include:
- PLA Lined Paper
- Molded Fiber
- Mineral-Filled Polypropylene
PLA Lined Paper
PLA lined paper is the most sustainable option. PLA stands for polylactic acid and is a resin made from corn starch. PLA is used to make clear compostable containers. It is also used as an impermeable liner in paper cups and containers to keep the paper from getting soggy.
PLA lined paper is suitable for hot and cold cups or containers.
It can withstand temperatures between 32 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit before distortion.
PLA lined paper is not microwaveable or ovenable.
PLA lined paper is made from paperboard that is lined with polylactic acid, a resin generated from plants rather than petroleum.
The plant-based resin acts as a barrier that prevents the paper part of the cup from absorbing the liquid and becoming soggy or leaking. (It is soak-through resistant)
PLA lined paper has poor heat transfer, causing the exterior of the container to become hot to the touch.
It is compostable at the end of its life.
PLA lined paper is the most expensive of the six alternatives.
Bagasse & Molded Fiber
Two very similar alternatives are bagasse and molded fiber.
Both can be molded into containers, plates, and bowls.
These materials can tolerate temperatures between 0 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit before distortion and are safe to put in the microwave.
Bagasse and molded fiber products are grease and cut resistant.
Both are made using environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. Bagasse is made from the leftover byproducts of the sugar or wheat extraction processes. Molded fiber is made from a blend of recycled paperboard, newsprint, and/or corrugated cardboard.
Bagasse and molded fiber are typically tan or white in color, offering the most natural-looking alternative to foam.
Many bagasse and molded fiber containers have poor steam control which results in soggy foods.
Both can be composted at the end of life.
Bagasse and molded fiber are less expensive than PLA lined paper.
Mineral Filled Polypropylene
Mineral-filled polypropylene also referred to as MFPP, products contain an average of 50% less plastic than standard polypropylene reducing the amount of total plastic required to manufacturer each cup or container.
Instead of plastic, it’s made up of mineral content, helping you meet sustainability goals.
MFFP is microwaveable with the ability to be used in temperatures between 37-240 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mineral-filled polypropylene is great for both hot and cold foods.
MFPP cups and containers are great for on-the-go applications. They are available in a variety of sizes, colors, and designs including:
Note that MFPP is not available in clear containers due to the mineral filling making the product opaque.
This material is cut and soak resistant, which prevents liquids or grease from leaking or being absorbed. Not only does this make it a versatile choice for prepared foods or serving food on the go it adds a level of safety for end-users.
Most MFPP containers have vents to prevent sogginess.
MFFP is also very sturdy, allowing the containers to be stacked.
MFPP cannot be recycled making it one of the lesser green choices of the sustainable options.
Mineral-filled polypropylene containers are not typically accepted at recycling locations so they need to be disposed of in a landfill or incinerated where available geographically.
Mineral-filled polypropylene is one of the least expensive styrofoam alternative options. In fact, it is the least expensive sustainable alternative.
Other Styrofoam Alternatives
The next two alternatives are less sustainable than the options above but are still effective substitutes for foam.
- Polycoated Paper
Aluminum is a thin metal material that is mostly used for containers.
Aluminum can withstand temperatures between -20 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
It can be frozen and used in the oven but is not microwave safe.
Aluminum has great heat tolerance and retention as well as good grease and liquid control.
Aluminum has sharp edges and a lack of exterior insulation which can cause potential risks to consumers.
Aluminum can be recycled after being washed.
Aluminum is the least expensive of the six alternatives.
Polycoated paper can be used for hot and cold cups or containers.
Polycoated paper is produced from either flat paperboard or corrugated board. Sometimes it can be made from post-consumer recycled content.
Advantages and Disadvantages:
Paperboard has good heat insulation and tolerance but has poor heat transfer.
The corrugated board has good insulation. Corrugated board is better at reducing heat transfer from the food or beverage to the outside of the cup or container, reducing the risk of consumer injury.
It can withstand temperatures from 20 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit before distortion. It is not oven or microwave-safe.
Polycoated paper is not compostable or recyclable at the end of its life.
Polycoated paper is more expensive than aluminum but less expensive than bagasse, molded fiber, and PLA lined paper.
*All prices based on the cost at the time of this writing.
Finding a product that fulfills your company’s needs is important to the satisfaction of your customers and the success of your business.
Each of these six alternatives can serve as an effective substitute for Styrofoam depending on the combination of price, performance, and appearance you are trying to meet.
EBP is dedicated to helping customers make a smooth and successful transition away from foam.
Our foodservice specialists are experts in helping customers tackle and adjust to the changing legislation and trends.
If you are not sure about how new bans and regulations may affect the product you buy for your business or would like to learn more about how to make the transition away from foam, let an EBP specialist help.
EBP and other Imperial Dade locations have a wide variety of containers to meet your facility’s needs, budget, and demands, whether you're located in the United States, Puerto Rico, or the Caribbean.
To help you better compare some of the replacement products for foam we put together a quick reference guide: