Celebrating 50 years of Quality Food Packaging

A Typical Phone Call

By Jeff Cole
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Phone Rings…

Genpaker – Hello this is Genpak

Caller – Hi my name is Jane and my 10 year old son attending our local school that is using your 5 compartment serving trays in their cafeteria.

Genpaker – Hey that is fantastic!

Caller – Well not so fast. His science teacher has told the class that the Styrofoam used to make these trays is not biodegradable and are clogging up our landfills. He also said the trays could leach toxins into the foods and make him sick. What do you have to say to that?

Genpaker – Okay let me start by saying the material used for these school trays is called foamed polystyrene. Styrofoam is actually a registered trademark of Dow Chemical.

Caller – Oh okay I didn’t realize that.

Genpaker – No problem. Anyway it is certainly true that foamed polystyrene is not biodegradable in a landfill environment. But did you know that pretty much nothing is biodegradable in modern landfills?

Caller – Really?

Genpaker– Yes. Most people think of landfills as giant compost piles where stuff thrown in just sort of goes away or biodegrades. But a better description of a landfill would be a giant mummifier where things just sort of stay as is. Did you know there have been digs done on landfills where they have found carrots that still snap and 5 year old newspapers that are still legible?

Caller – Huh

Genpaker– Yep. Also one of the reasons landfills are made like this is to reduce the amount of methane dispersed into the atmosphere from landfills and the amount of leachate that makes its way into our aquifers.

Caller – What is leachate?

Genpaker – It’s water that has sifted down through the landfill that has picked up particles and other nasty stuff.

Caller – Ah

Genpaker – Anyway, so even if the school system did use a biodegradable or compostable option, which by the way we do carry in our Harvest Fiber line, and continued to toss them into their solid waste stream, they’d still end up in the same landfill where they stay for a very long time.

Caller – Okay but what about the issue of these products clogging up the landfills?

Genpaker – Well I can tell you that according to a 2006 EPA study, plastic, single use food service items only accounted for 1.2% of all material heading to a landfill. The main item filling up landfills was actually paper and paperboard products.

Caller – How about that?

Genpaker – Right. And remember what we talked about regarding things not biodegrading? Now on to the whole safety issue.

Caller – Yes this is a big concern for me as I don’t want little Johnny growing a third eye or anything.

Genpaker – Rest assured he won’t grow a third eye from eating off our school tray. In fact a study was done on single use food packaging versus reusable or permanent foodservice ware that showed the single use products had significantly lower microbial levels. Also, since foamed polystyrene is such an excellent insulator, foods stay at optimal temperature longer thereby reducing food spoilage.

Caller – So you are saying they are totally safe.

Genpaker – Yes that’s exactly what I’m saying. Here’s one other thing to consider. Let’s say your school system did decide to switch away from single use school trays to a permanent tray option. They would need to construct or retrofit a special room to house an industrial strength dish washing system complete with all the wiring and piping. They’d need to staff that room, pay for the electricity to heat the water and run the washer, pay for the industrial strength detergents used and pay for the massive water consumption of a large washer, not to mention the waste water generated from such a washer. Now consider that a case of our 10,500 school trays costs…say around $18.00 for a case of 500. That translates to costing about 4 cents to per student. What do you think the permanent tray solution costs? I’ll bet it is more than 4 cents. That could translate to higher taxes for you.

Caller – Okay okay you made your point. I guess the foam school trays really aren’t bad for the environment or for the students after all.

Genpaker – That’s right. I’m glad you decided to pick up the phone and find out for yourself right from the horses mouth. If I may suggest, the American Chemistry Council produced a fairly decent pamphlet that covers most of what we talked about here today. You should get a copy and send it to school with your son. Since this topic came from his science teacher, I’m sure he or she would trust information coming from them as a valid source. Thanks again for calling and feel free to call us any time.