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Food packaging with PFAS should not go in the compost bin

The nation’s two major compostability certification organizations (Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA)) have stopped certifying new items as compostable if their ingredients include PFAS or they contain more than 100 ppm total fluorine. Products on BPI’s current certified list already meet these restrictions and all products on CMA’s list will meet them beginning in 2021. It is notable that our testing found 14 unique food packaging items with levels of fluorine over 100 ppm, even though some chains treat them as compostable. Restaurants that want their packaging to be acceptable for composting need to take a close look at the packaging they use and make sure it’s free of PFAS.

The PFAS crisis

PFAS have become global pollutants that threaten the health of people and wildlife. PFAS are notorious as drinking water contaminants from industrial releases, for their use in firefighting foam, and for their use in a myriad of other products. Today, millions of U.S. residents are drinking PFAS-contaminated water and nearly 100% are carrying a body burden of PFAS. With their remarkable persistence and mobility in the environment, PFAS move through soil to drinking water.

When PFAS are used in consumer products, they can migrate out to contaminate household dust and air. Testing of packaging from a number of fast-food chains published in 2017 found that the use of PFAS-treated wrappers and bags was widespread, with 46% of papers testing positive for fluorine. PFAS-treated paper food packaging and wrappers can contaminate food that touches them, and newer forms of PFAS migrate more readily into food than older forms. PFAS from food wrappers may also end up in people. A 2019 study analyzed data from a national survey on levels of PFAS in blood and in food consumed between 2003 and 2014 and found that eating microwave popcorn was associated with higher concentrations of PFAS in blood. Once the food is gone, the packaging goes to the garbage or into municipal compost. Either way, PFAS chemicals from a discarded bowl, wrapper or bag can make their way back to people through drinking water, food, and air. Food crops and gardens can become contaminated with PFAS-containing compost, as shown from research demonstrating plants taking up PFAS from soil.

In March of 2020, a consortium of scientists published a new scientific statement sounding the alarm about toxic chemicals such as PFAS in food packaging. Read it here.

Exposure to certain PFAS has been linked to a number of serious adverse health effects: kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, hormone disruption, pregnancy-induced hypertension/pre-eclampsia, liver damage, increased cholesterol, decreased antibody response to vaccines, increased risk of asthma diagnosis, changes in nervous system development, and lower birth weights.

While FDA worked with industry to remove certain older forms of PFAS from food-contact materials and recently announced that manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to phase out an additional subset of current-use PFAS from these materials, the agency still allows the use of other PFAS. This new announcement follows recent research by FDA scientists showing current-use PFAS are bioaccumulative and more toxic than FDA previously acknowledged. This research adds to the case that PFAS should be regulated as an entire class due to their high persistence, potential for accumulation, and hazards.

For more in-depth information on the types of PFAS commonly found in food packaging, see “The Problem with PFAS in Food Packaging and Contact Materials” in our earlier report Take Out Toxics: PFAS Chemicals in Food Packaging.

States and retailers stepping up to ban PFAS in food packaging

In the absence of federal leadership to protect health and the environment, states and retailers are stepping up. Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Ahold Delhaize, Albertsons, and Sweetgreen have announced steps to reduce or eliminate PFAS in food packaging.

Washington State passed the first state measure to restrict PFAS in paper food packaging in 2018, and Maine passed restrictions on PFAS as well as phthalates in food packaging in 2019. As of January 2020, bans in San Francisco and Berkeley have gone into effect. In all these cases, the bans cover the entire class of PFAS. Also this year, several states are considering legislation to ban PFAS in food packaging (see the Safer States Bill Tracker for more information).

Responding to public demand, Congress has initiated action on PFAS in food containers and cookware with the introduction of the Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act, sponsored by U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell and cosponsored by U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky.

PFAS-free food packaging alternatives

The results show that while some restaurant chains are using packaging that is likely PFAS-treated for certain foods, fluorine-free packaging for the same types of food is also in wide use.

  • In some cases, fluorine-free versions of the same packaging are available, such as burger or sandwich wrappers.
  • In other cases, a different type of packaging can be used. For example, instead of using cardboard clamshells to package burgers (one of one tested above the screening level) or using paper bags for greasy fries, other fried items, or desserts (six of six tested above the screening level), paperboard clamshells or other paper cartons free of fluorine can be used.

Food packaging manufacturers are responding to the rapidly growing market demand for fluorine-free products, making many PFAS-free products readily available.  Paper manufacturers that make and sell fluorine-free food service papers include Ahlstrom-Munksjo (Grease-Gard Fluoro-Free and Para-Free Wax Alternative papers), Nordic Paper (Natural Greaseproof Papers), Seaman Paper (EcoLite stock papers), Twin Rivers (Acadia Eco-Barrier papers), Domtar, and Delfort (Thin-Barrier Eco Paper).

Manufacturers of fluorine-free single-use food serviceware and packaging products that are on the market or will soon reach the market include Biodegradable Food Service, Dart Solo, Eco-Products, Footprint, Georgia Pacific/Dixie (Ultra Pathways), Huhtamaki, If You Care, Stalk Market, Transitions2earth, Vegware, WestRock Fold-Pak, Novolex, Pactiv, Inline Packaging, and World Centric.

Reusable food serviceware also remains widely available and is the preferred option.