November 24, 2009 / 5:59 PM / 9 years ago

Environmentalists target foam food trays

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Environmentalists and green businesses are targeting foam food trays used to sell vegetables, fruits and meat in grocery stores.

The ubiquitous trays, which are made from polystyrene, have a long shelf life in landfills, much like plastic bags which the green brigade also took aim at in recent years.

“The developers of expanded polystyrene made the perfect material. They brought the costs down. Functionally it works great. There are no complaints ... But it never goes away,” said Richard Feldman, chief executive of G4 Packaging.

The Los Angeles-based company makes trays primarily from sugar cane pulp that can be composted in 90 days or recycled.

Some U.S. cities have started to limit the use of foam trays. Portland, Oregon passed a ban in 1989 and last year Seattle, Washington voted to ban foam containers from all businesses serving food.

Seattle will ratchet up its measure next year. Beginning in July grocery stores will have to stop using foam trays for meat packaged on site and all businesses must use food containers that are compostable, as well as recyclable.

“Most plastics have pretty significant environmental impacts and we didn’t want them sent to the landfill,” said Dick Lilly, the business area manager for waste prevention at Seattle Public Utilities.

Smaller cities in Washington followed Seattle’s lead while the Costa Mesa, California-based nonprofit Earth Resource Foundation is pushing for statewide ban in California.

“This plastic problem is as big as global climate change ... It hurts your health, the economy and the environment,” the group’s executive director Stephanie Barger said.

Feldman believes legislative pressure could help to propel eco-friendly trays into a $100 million market.

His two-year-old company has more than $300,000 in monthly sales. Its deals include supplying trays for zucchini and peppers sold at upscale grocer Trader Joe’s. A veteran of the food packaging industry, Feldman has previously worked with fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp.

But going green in groceries will cost money — a major hurdle even when the economy is on an upswing. Trays made from natural materials like sugar cane pulp or bamboo weigh more and cost more than traditional foam trays.

Trays made by G4 Packaging can cost 8 cents each, about double the cost of a traditional container, Feldman said.

“At some point more and more people will say I as a consumer am willing to pay three or four cents more in order to go ahead and see this change,” Feldman said.

Reporting by Laura Isensee

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