Forever Chemicals in Food Packaging: We Need Less of this Fiber in Our Diets

Fiber bowls have become nearly ubiquitous in to-go foodservice over the past 6-7 years, largely in response to a rising tide of laws banning Styrofoam and single-use plastic in eco-conscious jurisdictions. Unfortunately, we’re just trading one environmental health problem for a different sort.

Even more than the ambiguously labeled ‘bio-plastic,’ fiber bowls evoke a sense of rustic, artisanal fabrication that is somewhat matched by their rough-sided, tanned hues. Do not be fooled.

Whether they are made from wheat straw, bamboo, cornstalks, recycled newspaper or bagasse (pulpy sugarcane discards), they only become suitable vessels for food if they’ve been treated with a class of chemical called PFAS, or perfluorinated alkylated substances.

PFAS in food trays

PFAS is also one of the substances you’ve heard called a forever chemical because it never breaks down into anything other than smaller and smaller molecules of itself. Years ago, these fiber products were treated with massively unsafe amounts of long-chain PFAS, which triggered a backlash. 

Nowadays, fiberware products contain smaller amounts of something called short-chain PFAS, which is less toxic in much the same way as getting stung once by a scorpion is less poisonous than getting stung three times. The health consequences run the gamut from aggravating to horrifying. And the switch still doesn’t address what happens as these bowls decompose and their coatings enter the environment.

This is probably a good time to mention that perfluorinated alkylated substances are part of a chemical family that created Teflon, the non-stick surface we now know was horribly toxic. PFAS repels moisture, which is why it can hold foods that are wet or greasy without any transference to the diner. Without the PFAS, the fiber bowl is going to get very soggy – and no restaurant would buy it.

How PFAS in food packaging damages the environment

As the bowl breaks down over time – whether in the landfill, composter or the ocean ‒ the PFAS leaches out. In landfills, it will bind to other liquids that are eventually collected and treated before they’re discharged. However, the short-chain molecule is too small for the filtration process to capture so it enters our water supply intact. You’d never want this product in your compost because it would contaminate your soil and plants. In the ocean, they will gradually release their toxic treatment into already polluted seas.

Fiber bowls may have a technical advantage over plastic and Styrofoam because their organic material could have a lower carbon footprint. But it’s not possible to claim that they are better for the environment. Short-chain PFAS are classified by the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) law as chemicals of “very high concern.” 

Standards for PFAS safety in our drinking water will chill you: 517 ppt (parts per trillion) is considered safe for adults and 140 ppt is safe for kids. For comparison, PFAS in bowl products are typically in the 100-200 ppm (parts per million) range – several orders of magnitude higher. Granted, you’re not eating the bowl itself, but one can imagine a bit of transference from bowl to hot food. And one can imagine how dangerous it is for our water supply to have billions of fiber bowls decomposing over time.

What’s the best, tried-and-true alternative? Good old-fashioned tin or aluminum containers with paper/foil covers. They’re moisture proof and eminently recyclable. 

Eliminating single-use plastic reduces PFAS

What does this mean for the Jybe app? Our core mission is eliminating single-use plastic and Styrofoam from food delivery. That’s the obsessive focus around which our platform and passion orbits. Our discovery of the perils of fiber bowls is an outgrowth of our attempt to help restaurants find the best replacements for plastic. We initially sought to grade fiberware options based on the quality of their primary component but, instead, discovered a long-term health hazard that we are obligated to warn against. As we continue to help source truly Earth-friendly options, beginning in 2021 we will adjust our algorithm to reduce the ratings of restaurants that choose to use PFAS-coated fiber products.

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