The next big changes coming to food service packaging.
First it was plastic bags, then it was plastic straws, now there are other food packaging concerns at the front of people’s minds. PFAS chemicals have been quietly concerning people for years and the calls to ban them from food packaging are getting louder. Three U.S. States have already banned the use of PFAS chemicals in food packaging, and some major restaurant companies are promising to eliminate their use as soon as possible. In fact, McDonald’s is one of the major businesses that have pledged to remove all PFAS from packaging given to customers by 2025.
What is PFAS and why is it called the forever chemical?
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), also known as PFCs are highly fluorinated chemicals that have water and grease repellent properties. They were created around the 1930’s and are currently used in many different items such as non-stick pans, waterproof clothing, and food packaging due to the water, oil, and grease resistant properties.
There are almost 5,000 different types of PFAS chemicals, but some are more widely used and studied than others. Other similar chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), were phased out gradually in the United States between 2000 and 2015. Many new PFAS with shorter fluorinated carbon chains have since taken their place.
PFAS chemicals have been referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ as they do not degrade or break down readily in the environment and can persist for many years, building up to critical levels. That means when PFAS-covered items are thrown away, the chemicals can leach into the environment where they will stay indefinitely. Studies have shown that PFAS from everyday products can accumulate in landfill sites and migrate into groundwater, impacting drinking water or crops.
How are PFAS chemicals harmful?
Humans are exposed to PFAS chemicals through contaminated food, water, and products with PFAS coatings, such as food packaging, non-stick pans, or industrial materials. The CDC has found PFAS chemicals in the blood of 98% of Americans and its presence is linked to many health conditions including cancer, thyroid disease, fertility problems, and hormone issues. The risks can be higher for children as well as pregnant women and fetuses. If PFAS chemical usage continues, over time the health impact may increase to critical levels.
Only three states and San Francisco have banned the use of PFAS in food packaging, but several other states are considering joining the ban. Regardless of laws and bans against PFAS chemicals, it is important that we phase them out of our packaging supplies now, so we can stop further accumulation in the environment and water and food supplies.
Public health advocates say that removing PFAS from the environment will require two actions: physically removing PFAS that currently exists in the environment, and enacting legislation to ban PFAS production and use. This will be no easy feat unless more people are educated about the effects of these compounds.
Why should restaurants care about PFAS chemicals?
PFAS chemicals excel in moisture and grease resistance, so they are often used in takeout boxes, food service tissue papers and wraps, pizza boxes, and popcorn bags. Unfortunately, this means that the chemicals can leach into your food and drinks before being ingested.
Furthermore, these chemicals do not degrade naturally so when they are thrown away or recycled, they remain in the environment for a very long time. From there they can contaminate new crops, food, water, and other necessary supply chains. They can then accumulate inside the human body in dangerously high levels through exposure and ingestion. The risk of using PFAS chemicals in packaging and other everyday items poses two risks, one of initial exposure, and one of environmental contamination that leads to future exposures.
A team studying these chemicals found PFAS present at a wide range of amounts in samples, finding that some packaging was deliberately treated but in other cases the chemicals may have come from recycled materials or other sources. Currently, PFAS are allowed in compostable food packaging, which can also affect levels in soil and crop plants.
What are the alternatives?
PFAS chemicals work very well for their intended purpose, which is why they have been so widely used in food and beverage packaging. However, there are alternative ways to give food packaging the moisture and grease resistance it needs for functional usage.
There are now plant-based polymers that can provide similar oil and grease resistant properties but made from plant sources that are safe for direct food contact. Some plant-based alternatives can also be recycled and composted, unlike plastic or wax alternatives.
Food service boxes and containers can also be made without any additives to hold food items. Paper boxes can use the thickness of the uncoated paperboard to keep grease and moisture from leaking through. They can also be made with special plant-based materials that have a resistance to grease and moisture, but are biodegradable and chemical-free. Even then, there needs to be special attention paid to the materials used in ‘eco-friendly’ food packaging, because it was found that some of the newer compostable packaging options still contained PFAS.
Food service tissue wraps can be made PFAS-free using plant-based alternatives to increase moisture and grease resistance. These sheets can also be used as a protective barrier between food and it’s packaging when chemical transference is a concern.
There will be a period of transition for PFAS-coated packaging, including popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and mass produced food items. It may not be easy to find widely available alternatives that are inexpensive and convenient. But it’s important to start looking for alternatives now so we can transition away from the use of harmful materials in our food packaging. If you own a restaurant or food service company, you can start phasing PFAS out of your packaging items today.
For more information on PFAS-free food service packaging, contact Morgan Chaney. Our packaging consultants can guide you with food service packaging options that are right for you.