Forever Chemicals- It’s What’s for Dinner
It might come as a shock to most Americans to learn that the foodware we’re eating from could contain hidden chemicals linked to cancer, thyroid disease, birth defects, hormone disruption, decreased fertility and other serious health issues. From disposable plates, to take-out containers, to compostable containers, CEH has found Per-and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) in many types of single-use foodware. Known as “forever chemicals” because of the human body’s inability to break them down, PFAS are now in the blood of 99 percent of Americans, which is cause for concern.
With so many different brands and types of disposable plates available in stores and online, how do you know which are the safest to use? And when it comes to take-out containers, do you really have a choice? Most likely you’re going to have to take what the restaurant provides. When we think about compostable or recyclable disposable containers, we think: convenient and environmentally-friendly. Well, think again.
With news of the European Union, Canada and now most recently China – taking steps to phase out single-use plastics, the obvious solution will be to switch over to compostables, right? Wrong.
Are compostables the answer?
Per-and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), more affectionately known as “forever chemicals”, are used in some single-use foodware, even compostables to make them water and grease-resistant. PFAS chemicals are used in a wide range of products that they are showing up everywhere – in people, our water, food, and even in cats and dogs. Exposure to this family of chemicals has been linked to a concerning array of health problems, including cancer, liver damage, decreased immune response, and decreased fertility.
With our fast-paced lifestyles, many of us come into contact with disposable foodware everyday – whether it is at our local coffee shop, restaurant, or at a social gathering. Most people have been surprised to discover that PFAS chemicals are found in the very food containers that have garnered a reputation as “environmentally preferable,” in part because they had been otherwise considered compostable. The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) has some useful materials to help you make your food service more sustainable and move away from these extremely persistent chemicals.
Look for products certified by the BPI
If you have access to a commercial composting facility that accepts food packaging and you’re planning to buy compostable products, please look for food containers that are certified compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). BPI has revised their standard so that now, only compostable single-use foodware without PFAS chemicals will be included on their list of certified products. Next, you will need to confirm with your composter that they will actually accept the products that you are interested in using. You can also request that your local restaurant do the same.
- CEH’s infographic, Healthier Food Serviceware Choices, provides a quick explanation of the problem with PFAS chemicals and how to chart a path to the greenest solutions.
- For more detailed information, please consult our report Avoiding Hidden Hazards: A Purchaser’s Guide to Safer Foodware.
- Finally, consult CEH’s Foodware Database, to look up information about the presence of PFAS in hundreds of specific products.
If you are interested in any foodware products that are not yet listed in our online database, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
One other note: CEH does not recommend using polystyrene food containers or food packaging (both polystyrene foam, which is often referred to as Styrofoam, or the rigid plastic). Our factsheet on polystyrene food containers highlights the health and environmental concerns with these products.