Sorry to interrupt your food delivery, but that ‘compostable’ takeout container may have toxic chemicals
Yes, they are made of biodegradable plant pulp but manufacturers add something called PFAS to make them sturdy—Let us explain
Aug 26, 2020
UPDATE: Some local manufacturers and sellers have since released statements to reassure consumers that their products have been tested for PFAS and are certified PFAS-free. Please see their respective statements below.
We are all for supporting small businesses while in quarantine—especially thriving home-based food businesses—but we need to talk about a supposedly better alternative to plastic packaging: those “compostable” bowls, platters, boxes and whatnot made of plant fiber and pulp like bagasse, the fibrous by-product of sugarcane juice extraction.
They are unmistakable. They are light brown in color with a rough texture that now often come with branded stickers to store baked goods, savory dishes and other food you ordered online.
Marketed as a better alternative supposedly because it is compostable, these containers have been introduced locally even before quarantine as a sustainable takeaway option.
But as many “biodegradable” plastic alternatives turn out to be, they’re actually not and they are also toxic to both humans and the environment.
They contain a toxic group of chemicals called PFAS
Let us introduce you to a group of chemicals called PFAS or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a key ingredient in the manufacturing of these takeaway containers.
In order to make mashed raw plant-based fibers like sugarcane, cornstalks, sorghum and even recycled newspaper sturdy enough to handle hot food and liquids without falling apart, PFAS is added in a process called a “wet-end” application.
Sounds like a necessary ingredient, doesn’t it? Except these fluorinated chemicals are toxic when ingested in high amounts and stored in the human body. And boy, do they stay inside our bodies for a long time: anywhere between four to 18 years.
Bad for our bodies and for the environment
What are some harmful effects of these chemicals you ask? Although it will need more extensive research to confirm how it specifically impacts the human body, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says PFAS may affect growth and development, reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system, and injure the liver. A review of literature on its studied effects also show links to cancer.
But that’s not all. PFAS are also notoriously known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment in the soil and in water for very long periods of time. Popular sources of these fluorinated chemicals include fire fighting foam and the textile and carpet industries.
It also doesn’t help that one of its sources that had gone undetected until last year—the takeout boxes and bowls we are talking about here—are not compostable as manufacturers say. To quote writer Joel Fassler, who wrote and researched extensively about the topic for The Guardian and The Counter, a US-based nonprofit, independent, nonpartisan food publication: “rather than degrade quickly, they contain potentially hazardous ingredients that never break down. Not in five years, and not in 500.”
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Our new study found that nearly half of the food packaging tested from popular fast-food and health-conscious chains contained levels of fluorine that suggested PFAS treatment. 🍟🍔🍵⠀ ⠀ These toxic chemicals can migrate to the food inside. Once packaging with PFAS is discarded, these forever chemicals can pollute the environment—and even end up in food crops. 😲🤬⠀ ⠀ Read the full report, titled Packaged in Pollution, from @toxicfreefuture and our #MindTheStore campaign at https://bit.ly/31glFea (and the link to take action is in our bio!)⠀
Long-chained vs. short-chained PFAS
A Manila-based environmental advocate recently found out about the harmful chemicals these purported alternatives to plastic and alerted Nolisoli to its effects. they have since been trying to contact local resellers to ask about the safety of these containers that have been widely circulated lately due to demand in home-based food businesses.
One seller assured them that their wares are safe considering they are made of sugarcane. Another referred to a certificate apparently issued to their business confirming that their products are free of long-chain PFAS, which has been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration since 2016.
Fassler’s sources, which include Laurel Schaider, a research scientist and water quality specialist at the Silent Spring Institute, said short-chain PFAS are less harmful than long-chain ones and then to stay inside the body for days or months only.
However, the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) law still classifies short-chain PFAS of “very high concern.” This is owing to the fact that a substantive amount of evidence has yet to prove the contrary. “While short-chain PFAS are already widely dispersed throughout the environment and in our bodies, the longer-term, sublethal effects of this dispersal are not known,” Fassler wrote citing a 2018 study in Environmental Sciences Europe.
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Is your favorite food chain using toxic chemicals in its packaging? 🥗🍔🍟🍪 Our new #MindTheStore study with @toxicfreefuture found nearly half of the food packaging tested from popular food chains contained levels of fluorine suggesting treatment with these #PFAS chemicals. In response to our study, @cava and @freshii both announced plans to address PFAS in their packaging in the coming year. And a few months ago, @sweetgreen announced it would be PFAS-free by the end of 2020. In contrast, burger chains like @mcdonalds, @burgerking, and @wendys have failed to act. The packaging can contaminate the food inside. Then after it’s discarded, the #ForeverChemicals can pollute the environment indefinitely—and even end up in food crops. Items from health-conscious chains that tested positive: a. Freshii bowl b. Cava kids’ meal tray c. Cava bowl d. sweetgreen salad bowl e. sweetgreen warm bowl f. Cava pita chip bag g. Cava wrapper for pita sandwich or mini pita Items from fast-food chains that tested positive: a. McDonald’s small fry bag b. McDonald’s Big Mac clamshell c. Burger King Whopper wrapper d. Burger King chicken nugget bag e. McDonald’s cookie bag f. Burger King cookie bag g. Wendy’s cookie bag Read the full report, titled Packaged in Pollution, at saferchemicals.org/packaged-in-pollution
What do we do now? Start by calling it what it is
So how do we ensure that the containers we are using are PFAS-free? The truth is, there is no hard way to completely know unless we test every single container out there in the market as Fassler did.
Some suggest lining containers with banana leaf to avoid direct contact of food with the container’s surface. That is, of course, apart from notifying restaurants and business owners to inquire from their suppliers.
But still, the fact that these non-biodegradable packaging—let’s call it what it is—exists means even if we refuse to use it, we’ll still have to dispose of it in one way or another. The first step outside of ensuring personal health and safety is to acknowledge the very fact against its existence: that it is not compostable. This way we can prevent good-intentioned and supposedly virtuous disposing of these materials in composting facilities, which will contaminate real biodegradable matter and later the earth and water where its end product ultimately ends up in.
Local manufacturers and sellers of these takeout containers reacting to this story have since put out clarifications on the safety of their products. Among them are EcoNest, Ecolutions PH and Greener Gene. Read their statements below and keep asking questions to your suppliers and the businesses you support.
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