Richard Feldman, founder of Los Angeles-based G4 Packaging, said he knows why polystyrene foam has been the material of choice when it comes to tray-wrapped produce and other food.

It’s inexpensive.

But at the end of its lifecycle, Feldman said, a foam tray carries another cost that goes beyond a few pennies saved.

“It’s a tremendous problem from a waste standpoint,” he said.

For instance, Feldman said, of the 3 million tons of polystyrene produced in the U.S. each year, the Environmental Protection Agency reports 2.3 million tons end up in landfill. One large supermarket has been found to use 400 million foam trays annually.

G4 Packaging, which started in January 2008, makes a tray made of organic, renewable sugar cane fiber that composts and biodegrades relatively quickly, he said.

“When you go through the process of refining sugar, you have leftover debris,” Feldman said. “In most cases, it’s burned off.”

Feldman said the Chinese government originally came up with a system to recycle the debris into packaging material. He said if the trays are dumped into a commercial compost system, the waste completely biodegrades within 90 days.

“In the fresh food segment of the food industry, what is packaged typically has a life of a matter of days,” he said. “This really helps out a great deal from a waste standpoint.”

Feldman acknowledged the major obstacle with the fiber-based packaging: cost. But, he said, Seattle already has mandated that, by July 1, 2010, all foam materials will be banned, and other cities, such as Portland, Ore., and San Francisco plans to follow suit.

“Every major retailer in the world is waiting for government to ban foam,” he said. “Then, nobody cares, because everyone is on an equal playing field.”

Feldman said he plans on showing his 16 different sizes of trays — “that will satisfy every requirement for produce,” he said — at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit Oct. 2-5 in Anaheim, Calif.

“I think we’re at the cusp of changing how people view packaging,” Feldman said. “I think, if we can overcome this cost issue, we can really be looking at the future of packaging here.”