Meet AirCarbon: A Sustainable New Material That’s Making Takeout Packaging Less Wasteful

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"AirCarbon is making food packaging more eco-friendly. Here's what to know—and how Shake Shack is already utilizing it at select locations."

With restrictions on indoor dining, takeout has become a go-to for much of the past year. According to a survey, 65 percent of respondents order in more frequently now than before the pandemic. While opting for pick-up or delivery keeps you safe (and keeps small businesses afloat), there’s a major downside: Every order requires a ton of wasteful packaging.

Most takeout packaging is designed to be single-use and invariably will find its way to landfills. There’s the bag, the styrofoam container, the plastic wrap, the cutlery, the handful of napkins, the condiment packets… the list goes on. The plastic bag the food comes in can take 500+ years to decompose. And a styrofoam container might take up to a million years to decompose (which is why the state of Maryland and cities like Seattle have banned the use of styrofoam packaging in particular).

Now, a year into the pandemic, some restaurants are working on switching to more natural materials. One being Shake Shack. Aside from testing aluminum water bottles in some of its locations, the fast-casual burger chain (which has 250+ locations worldwide) has also announced a partnership with Restore Foodware to pilot a sustainable packaging option called AirCarbon.

“Together, food and packaging containers account for almost 45 percent of the materials landfilled in the United States,” Jeffrey Amoscato, senior vice president of supply chain and menu innovation at Shake Shack, told Forbes. “We’re always looking at how we can create a more sustainable supply chain, from evaluating our packaging program to seeking out more sustainable solutions, which has enabled us to reduce our overall use of plastic across operations and delivery by 40 percent year-over-year.”

AirCarbon—which was founded after 10 years of research—could be game-changing for the restaurant industry. But what is it, exactly—and how is it going to make a difference?

What Is AirCarbon?

AirCarbon is a new technology that employs a process naturally occurring in the ocean, where microorganisms use air and greenhouse gases to make PHB, an energy storage material. The PHB is turned into pellets and is then melted into food packaging, like straws, forks, and knives.

AirCarbon products feel like plastic, are reusable, and keep their strength under hot and cold temperatures. But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike traditional plastic products, AirCarbon contains no synthetic plastics, is compostable, and is biodegradable—both on land and in water. The biomaterial has also been certified to be carbon-negative by Carbon Trust and SCS Global Services.

Unlike soggy pasta straws, these products truly feel like the eco-friendly and sustainable products of the future. Right now, Shake Shack is piloting AirCarbon in a handful of locations in the United States: West Hollywood and Long Beach, California, Miami Beach, Florida, and New York City (at the Madison Square Park and West Village locations). Here’s to hoping that list grows—and that other restaurants follow suit.

Curious about a zero waste lifestyle? Want to know what the “circular economy” really means? Subscribe to Brightly’s top-rated podcast, Good Together. Every 30-minute episode features daily, actionable tips to help you live your life more sustainably.

AirCarbon is making food packaging more eco-friendly. Here's what to know—and how Shake Shack is already utilizing it at select locations.

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