A Guide to Takeout Container Materials

19 Nov

Paper takeout containers are a relatively environmentally friendly option, making them a great choice for more than just Chinese restaurants.

Takeout food is a huge market. From restaurants taking orders to-go to supermarkets selling pre-prepared meals, food on the go is slowly taking up a bigger and bigger portion of the food industry. All restaurants should also offer customers the option to take home any unfinished food, and therefore, there is good reason for almost any food business to keep takeout containers on hand. Each year, different styles and types of these containers are developed, with the most commonly seen materials being Styrofoam, paper, plastic, or aluminum foil. Businesses should choose which containers to purchase based on price, food, and environmental concerns.


Styrofoam containers are a classic option for takeout joints. Styrofoam is made of a plastic called polystyrene, incorporated with about 95% air. There are many environmental concerns associated with Styrofoam due to its production using nonrenewable energy sources and its non-biodegradability. On the other hand, Styrofoam products are inexpensive, stackable, and lightweight. They remain cool to the touch, no matter how hot the contents, making them a great option for packing hot soup and stews. However, food stored in Styrofoam containers can become soggy, presenting a problem when packaging fried foods, hot sandwiches, and other dishes which become lower quality with moisture.


Paper takeout containers are most often associated with Chinese takeout food. However, paper containers can be ideal for many different types of foods, since they are usually microwave-proof. As with Styrofoam, paper containers keep in moisture as well, making them less than ideal for foods which can become soggy. Paper containers are more permeable to heat, which can make them uncomfortable to hold when they contain hot foods. To avoid this issue, some of the paper boxes are equipped with a handle. Hot drink sleeves can be used on paper cups containing hot drinks or soup. Though the use of paper is generally considered damaging to the environment, most paper containers are biodegradable, making them a sure step up from Styrofoam alternatives.

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Plastic is a notoriously problematic material for the environment, but can make a great takeaway container. Many plastic-like, biodegradable materials have been developed, which can create great, environmentally friendly takeout container options when compared to plastic containers. Easily stackable and tough to break, while relatively inexpensive, plastic containers are convenient options for many food businesses. Takeaway food venues may consider offering a discount to customers who bring back their old containers to reuse on their next purchase, due to the environmental effort as well as the cost the business saves by not giving away another container. Plastic containers usually should not be microwaved. They can get too hot to handle when containing hot foods and there is even speculation as to health hazards they may present due to the chemicals from the plastic being released into hot foods and liquids when hot.

Aluminum Foil

Aluminum foil pans are another inexpensive option for takeout containers. Though they are a fire hazard when placed in a microwave, they can safely and conveniently be used for heating in the oven, unlike the other options listed above. Aluminum pans are often staples in commercial kitchens. This can present an advantage by giving food businesses the option to order them in bulk, at a lower price per unit, while using them for food preparation as well as takeaway packaging. Aluminum transfers heat well, causing the pans to heat up when the contents are hot. However, the pans also cool down within a matter of seconds when exposed to room temperature air, which can make them easy to lift from the sides, even if they are partially filled with hot food. Aluminum foil production has a high carbon footprint, making it a less than ideal choice of takeout containers in terms of environmental considerations.

Ultimately, the best takeout containers for a venue will depend on the types of foods the venue offers, the price, and sometimes the environmental concerns. Some venues may also take the look of the containers into consideration, with many higher-end venues choosing to opt for more attractive plastic containers as opposed to other options such as Styrofoam and aluminum foil. In terms of the business side of things, due to the largeness of the takeaway food market, the most important thing for most venues is that they have the equipment on hand to be able to offer customers the option to take away food.

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