Food-service product manufacturers are looking at polystyrene alternatives in response to bans on expanded PS takeout containers and other environmental issues.
``If you look at people's fresh offerings, you are starting to see a combination of materials put together for hot cups to rival the thermal capacity of polystyrene,'' said John Burke, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute Inc., in a Sept. 21 telephone interview.
One example: paper cups with either foam inserts or foam exteriors that eliminate the need for a cardboard sleeve.
Burke said entries in the Falls Church, Va.-based trade group's 2007 awards competition also suggest ``people are looking for ways to green up their packaging.''
``We are seeing more evidence of packaging made out of alternative materials - saw grass, sugar cane, bamboo and PLA - or polylactide acid,'' he said.
Winners of the competition will be announced Oct. 13 at the association's fall meeting in Tucson, Ariz.
Burke said most of the new products featured in the competition are aimed at competing with PS or polypropylene products, such as plates, bowls and hinged containers.
Which materials emerge as new competitors depends on the application and who else may be competing to use the raw material, Burke said.
``Any product related made from a corn base will be in competition with people who want to use corn for ethanol,'' Burke said. ``My guess is that Mr. Ethanol will win all the time. That is why companies are looking at other plants and fibers as raw materials for the bioplastics and biofiber products.''
Burke said a growing market for takeout food - both at grocery stores and restaurants - is pushing innovation toward containers that keep products hot or cold longer.
``People are adopting a systemwide approach. They will develop a container with a tight seal that goes into an insulated bag that has bubble wrap on the inside,'' he said. ``All these trends bode well for packaging and the amount of packaging. Obviously, from our point of view, that is a good thing.''
FPI numbers indicate single-use packaging constitutes 88 percent of the packaging food-service operators use and, their packaging costs are equal to between 3-4 percent of their menu prices.
FPI's survey of 1,400 quick-service restaurants, released Sept. 19, indicated only 25 percent of customers sit down at their establishments to eat.
``Takeout and drive-through constitute a large part of [quick-serve restaurant] business,'' said FPI marketing director Lynn Dyer. ``I suspect next year when we survey full-service restaurants, that we will see a lot more of them are offering takeout and delivery services.''
Burke said campaigns against some single-use containers are a concern.
``The environmental push starts at colleges and universities,'' Burke said. ``Students are going to their food-service director and asking them `Why are we using polystyrene containers?'''
As for the West Coast initiatives, he said food-service operators are sitting back and waiting to see how serious the trend is - as California represents 10 percent of the U.S. market.
``We see the legislation virus popping up,'' Burke said, ``but it is a question of whether this is a momentary blip. How quickly will the virus spread? How toxic is its strength? Right now, it is primarily a left-coast phenomenon.''
Those concerns were evident in the state-of-the-industry report FPI released earlier this year.
Converters of single-use food packaging said one of their top three challenges was the development of new products in response to calls for sustainable packaging. The other top concerns: the merger and acquisition activity prompted by the infusion of money from private equity firms, and increasing raw material costs.
The Foodservice Packaging Institute, formerly known as the Foodservice & Packaging Institute, dropped the ``'' in September.