August 30, 2019

PFAs, or “forever chemicals,” found in molded fiber bowls


Compostable bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen actually contain unsustainable chemicals

PFAs, or “forever chemicals,” found in molded fiber bowls – The last few years have witnessed a flurry of sustainability initiatives, pledges, and eco-friendly products from companies hoping to position themselves as environmentally sound in the eyes of the public. The packaging industry especially has shifted dramatically towards sustainable materials, with a variety of companies announcing changes and implementing new packaging solutions. The trend toward eco-friendly products shows promise, but as the market races ahead, it is important to make sure we are going in the right direction.


Molded fiber food packaging containers

One of the most famous of these new, sustainable packaging products is the molded fiber bowl that has become common across the United States at Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and other restaurant locations. The bowl is marketed as being 100% compostable, biodegradable in less than 2 months, and sustainably made from natural resources. It has been praised as the answer to the pollution of plastic and Styrofoam food packaging. It’s now causing new packaging waste problems.


What happened?

In the rush to find new viable, sustainable packaging alternatives at maximum cost efficiencies, companies have overstepped in the wrong direction. Recent testing completed by The New Food Economy has found dangerous chemicals known as PFAs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the molded fiber bowls found at Chipotle and Sweetgreen.

After studying 14 locations of 8 distinct restaurants in New York City, The New Food Economy discovered that all samples showed substantially higher levels of fluorine, which points to the presence of PFAs. These fluorinated chemicals are added to the molded fiber specifically to prevent the paper bowls from instantaneously disintegrating upon contact with hot, greasy food. However, in this case, the cost is too high.


Threat to the environment

PFAs present a serious threat to the environment for one simple reason: they never break down. In contrast to plastic, which takes 500 years to degrade, these “forever chemicals” have no half-life, they remain in the environment forever. Joe Fassler at the New Food Economy explains, “Researchers who study fluorochemicals have a favorite metaphor: When it comes to PFAs, the Earth is a bathtub with no drain…Every drop ever produced will slosh around eternally inside the clawfoot tub that is this planet.”

What’s scary is that these bowls were supposed to be a sustainable answer for food packaging. Chipotle and Sweetgreen have been promoting them as compostable alternatives, when in reality they might be contaminating our soil and composting sites. In fact, a June study in Environmental Science and Technology Letters presented evidence that recycling facilities that had been composting fiber-based bowls showed 10 times higher levels of PFA chemicals than other facilities. Researchers involved with the study are hesitant to confirm causality, however.


Rush to legislative action

Confronted with the fear of PFAs toxifying our soil and water, representatives in Congress have already pushed for legislation protecting against these chemicals. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) has introduced a bill that would ban the use of PFAs from paper-based food packaging, titled the “Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAs Act of 2019.” San Francisco has also passed a ban on food packaging containers that contain PFAs that will take effect January 1st, 2020.

Molded fiber packaging arose as a direct result of bans on Styrofoam, which forced companies to seek sustainable alternatives. It’s important as this process of regulation and innovation continues however, that testing is completed and solutions vetted to prevent such sideways progress from happening.


Taking material OUT of our waste stream

At EPE, we rigorously test our packaging solutions and consider every stage of the packaging lifecycle. This starts with understanding our raw materials and continues through the design and manufacturing process, implementation as packaging, home and business use, then the recovery and reuse, and ultimately, the recycling of all materials. This gives us the full confidence in the environmental impact of our packaging solutions and allows us to stand by our commitment to sustainability.

While many companies strive to find material replacements, we also focus on reducing material usage as a whole, seeking to remove as much material out of the waste stream as possible. Our innovative designs have already resulted in the reduction of 843 billion cubic feet of material since 2012. We understand how to design for less material, maximize recyclability and reusability, and optimize at the least environmental impact.

Talk to our packaging professionals today to learn more about how to improve your packaging solutions.