PE vs PLA vs Aqueous Lined Containers

PE-lined vs PLA-lined vs aqueous-lined takeout containers… Which is the best choice for your takeout needs?

In this article:

The Environmental Impact of Restaurant Disposables

Convenience has become the cornerstone of our daily lives, and part of that convenience is the ease and joy that comes with takeout and delivery.

But with the rapid rise in takeout comes a surge in single-use plastic. While this industry has unquestionably offered ease for consumers, it has also led to considerable environmental repercussions. A predominant concern lies in the use of plastic containers, such as those made from polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and even bioplastics like polylactic acid (PLA).

The Plight of Plastics

Plastic is omnipresent in the food service industry due to its durability and moisture resistance. However, its convenience belies a grim environmental cost. 

There are many different variants of plastic, many of which are hard to recycle, often ending up in landfills or as litter. Plastic persists for centuries, leaching toxins and fragmenting into microplastics that pervade ecosystems.

We produce roughly 400 million tons of waste per year, 85% of which ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste. And 36% of all plastic produced are single-use products for the food service industry. 

Sizing Up the Sustainability Quotient

So, what are our options? Plastic has been a mighty soldier for many years, effectively keeping takeout hot and leak-free. But with the rise in concern over microplastics bleeding into our food and our environment, what are restaurants supposed to switch to?

Paper containers have been around nearly as long as plastic containers, but they aren’t known for being as sturdy as plastic. But what if they could be?

Plain paper containers are great for dry foods, but hot meals, sauces, and soups are likely to leak through the paper without some kind of protective lining. This is where PE, PLA, and aqueous lined containers come to play.

PE, PLA, and Aqueous Lined Paper Takeout Containers

Coated paper containers are sturdy, reliable, leak-proof, and keep food hot. But not all linings are alike, as they vary in safety, durability, and reliability. 

So which type of lining is the best choice for your restaurant? Let’s break it down.

pe-lined folding takeout container with kung-pao inside

PE-lined Takeout Containers

PE-lined containers are a staple in the food service industry, guarding against the pitfalls that can turn a meal on-the-go into a messy ordeal. 

The ‘PE’ in PE-lined stands for Polyethylene, a petroleum-based plastic. With paper products, a thin PE film is applied to their interior. This film acts as a barrier against moisture and grease, ideal traits for transporting everything from hot stews to chilled desserts without compromising the container’s integrity.

What are the benefits of PE-lined containers?

  • Water and acid-resistant
  • Helps retain heat
  • Recyclable*
  • Maintains the quality and presentation of food during transit
  • Reliable and durable

What are the drawbacks of PE-lined takeout containers?

  • Microplastics
    • Released when the lining comes in contact with heat, whether in the microwave or when hot food is transferred into the container.
  • Recylability depends on the municipality*
    • Some municipalities cannot recycle plastic-lined containers, and they must be thrown in the landfill.
  • Not compostable
  • Not biodegradable
  • Contibutes to plastic pollution

How to spot PE-lined products

To identify a PE-lined container, look for an interior that is shinier and smoother than plain paper. Sometimes, you might notice a clear distinction where the paper ends and the PE lining begins. If the container seems to repel moisture or oil when holding food products, it’s likely that it is PE-lined.

Learn More: The BC Plastic Ban Breakdown

pla-lined takeout containers with poke inside

PLA-lined Takeout Containers

In the pursuit of green alternatives to traditional plastics, PLA-lined containers have entered the scene with a buzz. Standing for Polylactic Acid, PLA is derived from fermented plant starch, often from crops like corn or sugarcane. Because it’s made from renewable sources, PLA is considered a bioplastic. 

This type of plastic is heralded for its eco-friendly potential, but the reality of their environmental impact is a little more complicated. While PLA comes from renewable resources, its end-of-life outcomes pose complex challenges.

Bioplastic is popular for its supposed biodegradability; however, the conditions required for this process are far more specific than most realize. PLA needs industrial composting facilities, which maintain high temperatures and controlled environments, to break down. Even then, the process is not as rapid or complete as one might expect. Bioplastics often break into chunks or leave microplastics behind, contaminating compost piles.

What are the benefits of PLA-lined containers?

  • Made from renewable sources
  • Water and acid-resistant
  • Helps retain heat
  • Commercially compostable*
  • Reliable and durable

What are the drawbacks of PLA-lined containers?

  • Not microwave safe
    • Will bubble and melt at high temperatures.
  • Breaks down into microplastics
    • Because of this, many municipalities will not accept PLA in the green bin and do not see it as a compostable product.
  • Not recyclable
    • Will contaiminate recycling streams due to differing chemical structure.
  • Not home compostable
    • Breaks down similarly to traditional plastic in natural environments.

How to spot PLA-lined products

You can identify PLA-lined containers by their slightly rigid and glossy finish. They often mimic the appearance and feel of petroleum-based plastics, which can make differentiation challenging at a glance. However, they are usually marked with a PLA or compostable symbol, which is key to ensuring these products find their way to the appropriate industrial composting facility—though such facilities are scarce.

Learn More: Why Bioplastics Aren’t the Answer to Our Plastic Problem

group of aqueous-lined takeout containers on moss with black background

Aqueous-Lined Takeout Containers

Among the vast array of takeout container options, those with aqueous coatings stand out for their genuine commitment to environmental sustainability. Unlike their PE and PLA counterparts, aqueous-coated containers are quickly gaining favor for their eco-friendly profile and effective functionality. 

Aqueous coating is a water-based solution applied to paper products to provide a protective barrier against moisture and grease. This innovative approach leverages simple chemistry to enhance the natural properties of paper without resorting to synthetic plastics. Once cured, an aqueous coating forms a clear, non-toxic layer that is safe for food contact and resistant to external elements.

While PLA and PE are lining, aqueous solution coats the interior of containers, absorbing into the paper. And due to its extremely low polymer content, aqueous coating is considered to be plastic-free.

What are the benefits of aqueous coating in takeout containers?

  • Fully industrial and home compostable
  • Water and acid-resistant
  • Microwave-safe
  • Plastic-free
  • Heat retention
  • Reliable and durable

What are the drawbacks of aqueous coated takeout containers?

  • Not as water-resistant as plastic linings
    • Aqueous coating is water-resistant for up to three days

How to spot aqueous coated products

Aqueous coatings impart a subtle sheen to paper containers, providing a visually attractive finish without the overtly plastic look of other coatings. They maintain the tactile paper feel and can endure a range of temperatures, safeguarding the quality of takeout food from the inside out. Users can often recognize aqueous-coated containers by their matte finish.

Learn More: Is Aqueous Coating Really Eco-Friendly?

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