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Deli Packaging 101

When considering the world of disposable deli packaging, one has to start with an uncomfortable assumption: complete sustainability is impossible. 100% sustainability would have me spooning Emerald Sesame Kale or Hearty Potato Salad directly into your cupped hands, and I think we can all agree that that’s just not practical.

Though we do have plates and bowls for folks who want to eat in our seating area, there are always times when you’ve got to get your food to go. Reusable packaging is an enticing option that we’re actively pursuing, but navigating the health department rules surrounding this has proven to be tricky.

Unfortunately, disposable packaging is an inevitable part of the Deli, and inevitably, some waste is going to happen. As a Deli Manager with the personal and professional desire to live a sustainable existence, that’s a tough realization to make.

What I can do is make the most environmentally friendly choices possible, and make educated, well-researched decisions when picking out the packaging we use.

Over the past year, it became abundantly clear that the “Smartcycle” plastic pints and half pints we used in the Deli would have to be replaced. Not only did many of our customers hate them (they were hard to open and tended to cut people with their sharp edges), but there was the uncomfortable fact that even though they had the #1 recyclable logo on the bottom, the City of Madison will not recycle any deli containers, regardless of the number. They were made from recycled plastic, and would be a great alternative if we could recycle them, but throwing them into the landfill was doing no good at all. Choosing a replacement for these plastic containers proved to be tough, and a great learning experience. We were forced to choose between the lesser of many evils, and wade through a plethora of unregulated claims made by companies with more desire to make a buck than to demonstrate true environmental stewardship. We eventually decided on PLA (polylactic acid—corn based) plastic containers. Though this material has problems of its own, given that there is no recyclable alternative in Madison, I believe that they are best choice.

Below is a quick guide to the disposable packaging we use in the Deli: the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you’d like to lessen the environmental impact of your Deli foodeven further, have us put your food on a plate or in a bowl and eat it in the store or in our outdoor eating area. Though the hot water in our dishwasher uses some energy, it’s nothing compared to the energy required to make disposable containers.


  • Made from 100% corn starch. Produced domestically in Nebraska.

  • Compostable, but needs at least 10 days at 120ºF to compost fully. These containers will compost in 90 days in a commercial composting facility. They are not recommended for home composting, although if shredded first, they may compost in 6-12 months in a well maintained home composter.

  • Corn used to make PLA plastic comes from the general supply chain, and is not certified to be GMO-free. However, all of the genetic material from the corn is destroyed during production.

  • A life cycle analysis performed by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg, Germany concluded that even if PLA plastic deli containers are put in a landfill, they offer a significant reduction in carbon output and overall energy use. In the study, PLA containers produced an average of 49.2 kg of CO2 per 1,000 containers, compared to 58.6 kg of CO2 for 1,000 conventional plastic containers—a reduction of 16%. The same study concluded that PLA containers take 15% less energy to produce when compared with petroleum based plastic containers: .93 gigajoules per 1,000 PLA containers compared to 1.1 gigajoules per 1,000 conventional plastic containers.

  • PLA plastic does not contain BPA, and is much less toxic than petroleum-based plastics.


  • Excellent alternative to Styrofoam.

  • Made from the waste fibers left over after sugar cane is juiced.

  • Will compost within 90 days in a home composter. It’s recommended that they be shredded first.

  • Microwavable, does a great job of holding hot foods without leaking.


  • 100% recovered materials (30% post consumer).

  • Utilizes only vegetable-based ink.

  • Uses a chlorine-free bleaching process.


  • Utilizes only vegetable-based ink.

  • Uses a chlorine-free bleaching process.


  • Made from domestically grown products: 80% potato starch, 20% soy oil.

  • Will compost in 180 days in a commercial composting facility.

  • Washable and reusable.


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