Since the 1950’s, a problematic group of chemicals have been widely used in food packaging that most Americans have come in contact with. They’re what prevents grease from soaking through your pizza delivery boxes, and your to-go salad container from leaking. The presence of these chemicals contaminates food and leaches into the environment – with studies detecting their presence in 95 percent of the U.S. population. Growing concerns about the effects of these chemicals have pressured companies to seek alternative materials for their food packaging.
What’s the problem with PFAS?
Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS, are known as “forever chemicals” – meaning that the chemicals never break down. Their production and use are known to contaminate landfills, soil, water sources and air. According to the CDC, a myriad of health issues have been potentially linked to repeated exposure to PFAS, impacting immunity and reproductivity, and increasing the risks of certain cancers. PFAS are commonly used for to-go food packaging, but can also be found in non-stick cooking surfaces, clothing, furniture and fire fighting foams.
Where have they been banned?
New York, Washington state and Maine are the states that have placed bans on the use of PFAS in food packaging. We’re seeing more food industry giants pledge to discontinue the use of “forever chemicals” in their packaging. In 2020, fast casual restaurants Sweet Green and Chipotle switched to food packaging free of PFAS. McDonalds, the world’s biggest fast food chain, announced its commitment to phase out the use of PFAS in food packaging by 2025. Amazon also placed a ban on toxic chemicals in food packaging for the Amazon Kitchen brand. This is the newest phase of Amazon’s chemicals and restricted substances policy, which prohibits using chemicals of concern in Amazon-owned Private Brand products.
What’s replacing them?
The simplest solution for consumers to avoid consumption of PFAS is to avoid takeout entirely. The convenience and comfort of prepared food makes that unrealistic, so companies are looking for alternative ways to package ready made foods. The task of producing bowls, takeout boxes and wrappers without PFAS has proven challenging. Without the compounds that make it easy to repel oil, water and grease, engineers had to test out fiber materials that would stand up to heat and moisture. But as the demand for safer materials in food packaging grows, a variety of alternatives have become available.
“FlexArmor”, Novolex, and Stencoat are some notable examples of environmentally friendly food packaging options that offer barriers from oil and grease. We’re sure to continue seeing new PFAS-free solutions implemented into food packaging, as pressure mounts to ban the use of PFAS in food-contact materials. While it is undoubtedly more costly for businesses to provide packaging free of PFAS, keeping forever chemicals out of our bodies and environment are well worth the price.