These 'eco-friendly' food containers aren't suitable for composting, and may not be fit for other 'natural' environmental and health options either. So, don't get smoked by the current hype of this culinary star of the past few years. It may not be all you're bargaining for - and is probably far less.
Warning: Biodegradable Bowls Contain Toxic Chemicals
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), widely used chemicals that make products water-, oil-, grease- and stain-resistant, are associated with significant health hazards
PFAS chemicals take thousands of years to degrade, which is why many refer to them as “forever chemicals.” Disturbingly, these toxic chemicals have become ubiquitous in our environment
One source of environmental contamination is PFAS-treated food wrappers and containers. Testing reveals all so-called “biodegradable” food containers contain PFAS, making them unsuitable for composting
Using toxic nondegradable chemicals in a biodegradable product is a tremendous oversight that has led to a PR nightmare
Research confirms that compost in which food packaging was included had a toxic load ranging from 28.7 micrograms per kilo to 75.9 mcg/kg. Compost samples that did not include food packaging had a PFOA contamination level ranging between 2.38 and 7.6 mcg/kg
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances1,2 (PFAS) are widely used chemicals that make products water-, oil-, grease- and stain-resistant. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are associated with a wide array of health problems — even at very low exposure levels — including:
Low birth weight4
In May 2015, 200 scientists from 38 countries signed the so-called Madrid Statement on PFASs,11,12 which warns about the harms of all PFAS chemicals, both old and new. According to the Madrid Statement, health effects associated with the older, long-chain PFAS's such as PFOA, include:13
Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune- and endocrine systems
Adverse neurobehavioral effects
Neonatal toxicity and death
Tumors in multiple organ systems
Testicular and kidney cancers
Reduced birth weight and size
Decreased immune response to vaccines
Reduced hormone levels and delayed pubertyPFAS Are 'Everywhere'
PFAS chemicals take thousands of years to degrade, which is why many refer to them as "forever chemicals." Disturbingly, these toxic chemicals have become ubiquitous in our environment, including groundwater.14,15
PFAS are also found in the U.S. food supply — and at levels far exceeding the advisory limit for PFOA and PFAS in drinking water (there's currently no limits in food).
Of the 91 foods tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017 as part of its Total Diet Study16 (presented17 at the 2019 meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry), 10 were found to contain PFAS.18,19,20,21 How do they get there?
Food Wrappers — A Significant Source of PFAS
Industrial production is just one route by which PFAS enter our environment and food supply. Another is through everyday waste, such as fast food wrappers and containers that end up in landfills, from where they continue to contaminate soil and water.
Disturbingly, findings reveal that even so-called "biodegradable" food containers contain these "forever chemicals," which may create an even greater problem.
Thinking the containers are biodegradable and safe, people will place them in their compost, creating a vicious circle where the chemicals contaminate and ruin the compost, which is then mixed into the soil, where they contaminate the food grown in it. Ultimately, the chemicals end up on your plate again, now inside the food.
Research22 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in 2007 found PFAS chemicals in the blood of more than 98% of Americans tested. Considering their current prevalence in our food supply, it seems reasonable to assume everyone is exposed to some degree, and that blood levels have likely increased in the years since the CDC's testing. Biodegradable Bowls Contain PFAS
Concerns over mounting plastic waste pushed fast food companies to invest in safer wrappers and containers, but recent findings reveal a truly remarkable lack of understanding on behalf of some manufacturers. Writing for New Food Economy, Joe Fassler reports the disappointing news:23
"The biggest culinary star of the past five years isn't a chef, or a restaurant group, or the author of a cookbook. It's a bowl, a humble piece of take-out packaging that's taken the world of commercial foodservice by storm, rising so quickly that few have noted its troubling secret …
If molded fiber bowls have become a kind of status symbol in the restaurant world … it's probably because they've been positioned as an antidote to the industry's alarming take-out waste problem.
Many varieties are explicitly pitched to food-service buyers as compostable, certified by third-party assessors like the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). Unlike styrofoam clamshells or wax-lined soup cups, fiber products feel like they'd turn into mush on a leaf pile …
But these products … are instead contributing to a growing environmental crisis. According to experts consulted for this story, all molded fiber bowls contain PFAS …
This means that the bowls used at restaurants like Chipotle and Sweetgreen aren't truly compostable, as has been claimed. Instead, they are likely making compost more toxic, adding to the chemical load of the very soil and water they were supposed to help improve."
All Compostable Bowls Found to Contain PFAS
For its report, New Food Economy tested 18 biodegradable fiber bowls from eight restaurants at 14 locations in New York City, including Chipotle, Sweetgreen and Dig — three restaurants that claim to compost its waste.
All were found to contain high levels of fluorine,24 which is indicative of PFAS being used. The inside (food contact side) of the bowls averaged 1,599 parts per million (ppm) of fluorine, a level far higher than what you'd find in an accidentally contaminated sample.
Now, the test used only measures total fluorine, not individual PFAS chemicals, and the total level of any given PFAS is likely to be higher than the total fluorine level. Fassler explains:25
"… [A] bowl containing 1,670 ppm fluorine will contain more total PFAS, since every molecule of the chemical compound contains multiple atoms — not just of fluorine, but of carbon, and other elements.
Though it's impossible to say for sure due to the wide variety of PFAS chemicals … according to a rough calculation, a bowl with 1,670 ppm fluorine would likely contain about 2,000 ppm total PFAS.
Put another way: A bowl with 2,000 ppm total PFAS might be mostly made from sugarcane fiber, but 0.2 percent of its total material would be made from fluorinated chemicals …
That might not sound like very much. But due to the unique properties of fluorinated chemicals, it turns out to be a significant number, and an alarming one. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain that drinking water can only contain infinitesimal amounts of fluorinated chemicals before health concerns arise."
Do Not Compost 'Biodegradable' Bowls
Research26,27 published in 2017 found fluorine in 46% of the fast food wrappers and takeout containers tested, and studies28,29,30 have confirmed fluorinated chemicals can migrate from the packaging into the food.
If it's true that 100% of so-called "biodegradable" fiber bowls contain PFAS, then they would actually be a far more hazardous choice than other "standard" wrappers and containers — at least as far as PFAS exposure is concerned. As noted by Fassler, it is the surface treatment with PFAS that prevents the fiber bowls from falling apart when filled with hot, wet or greasy food.
Using toxic nondegradable chemicals in a biodegradable product is a tremendous oversight. Clearly, restaurants should not advertise these containers as compostable, yet many do just that. It's not surprising then that the revelation has become a PR nightmare. As noted by Fassler:31
"… [A]ny product that contains PFAS can't really be compostable, let alone biodegradable, despite restaurants' claims to the contrary. Though fiber products have benefits from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, the bowls we tested are likely making soil and water quality worse."
Indeed, recent research confirms this warning. Tipped off about the presence of PFAS in compostable containers, the authors of a 2019 paper32,33 decided to assess the presence of these chemicals in municipal compost. In all, samples from nine commercial compost stations and one backyard compost pile were tested for 17 different PFAS.
Confirming suspicions, compost in which food packaging was included had a toxic load ranging from 28.7 micrograms per kilo to 75.9 mcg/kg. Compost samples that did not include food packaging, on the other hand, had a contamination level ranging between just 2.38 and 7.6 mcg/kg.
While it's disturbing that all compost samples contained PFOA and PFOS — the older, long-chained PFAS that are no longer in use — compost with food packaging was clearly more heavily contaminated with a variety of PFAS. If there's any good news here, it's that some states are starting to take action against PFAS.
As noted by Fassler,34 San Francisco is banning bowls manufactured with PFAS as of January 1, 2020, and Washington's Healthy Food Packaging Act35 — enacted in 2018 — bans all PFAS in paper food packaging, effective 2022.36 A drawback of the Act is that the ban will not take effect until or unless a safer alternative is commercially available.
Sewage Sludge — A Major Source of PFAS on Farms
As reported by The Intercept37 in June 2019, sewage sludge appears to be a major source of PFAS. Documents38 obtained by The Intercept reveal 44 samples of sewage sludge tested by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection all contained at least one PFAS chemical, and "In all but two of the samples, the chemicals exceeded safety thresholds for sludge that Maine set early last year."
Maine's tolerance levels for PFAS are set at 2.5 parts per billion (ppb) for PFOA, 5.2 ppb for PFOS, and 1,900 ppb for PFBS. Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland, told The Intercept these levels are "probably about 10 times weaker than they should be," adding that "Even low parts-per-billion levels of PFAS in sludge can threaten the health of the food supply."
You can learn more about the hazards of sewage sludge in the featured documentary, "Biosludged,"39 and the scientific fraud perpetrated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that legalizes the pollution of agricultural soils through the usage of contaminated industrial and human waste as fertilizer.
DuPont Shirks Cleanup Duty
In related news, DuPont, a longtime maker of PFAS chemicals stands accused of creating a fraudulent spinoff, Chemours, in an effort to shirk environmental liabilities caused by its chemical manufacturing. (Chemours is the name of the spinoff company created through DuPont's merger with Dow Chemical Inc. in 2015.40) Chemours lawyers told Bloomberg:41