The Pink Elephant Lady
Is there PFAS in Compostable Foodservice Packaging? Is there PFAS in Compost?
What's PFAS? And why should I be concerned about it?
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a large group of man-made chemicals that include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). PFAS have been used globally since the 1940s in manufacturing, firefighting and thousands of common household products like carpeting, cleaning products, and paints, and in consumer products like nonstick cookware and even dental floss. These chemicals are persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time.
What does this have to do with compostable plates and bowls?
Chemical compounds in the PFAS family are widely used in compostable molded fiber or bagasse foodservice packaging to provide moisture, oil, and grease resistance. This is the kind of foodservice packaging you'll see used at farm-to-table restaurants, many hip fast-casual spots, and grocers that sell prepared food like Whole Foods. Molded fiber products are made with waste paper or other natural cellulose fibers, and bagasse products are made from the dry pulpy residue left after the extraction of juice from sugar cane.
Are compostable containers that contain PFAS dangerous?
Not according to the FDA (interpret that however you may). The FDA has approved certain types of PFAS for use in food packaging. Does PFAS in compostable food packaging leach into food? The FDA’s testing to date has shown that very few foods contain detectable levels of PFAS. In a 2019 study, varying levels of PFAS were found in 14 samples out of the 91 tested, but the FDA declared the products were not likely to be health concern at the levels that were detected.
There are no national health guidelines in place specifically regarding PFAS in compost, and research around the issue remains limited. But composters handling food waste largely agree the main source of the PFAS that shows up in their facilities is due to food packaging.
In August 2019, The Counter (at the time it was called New Food Economy) published an investigative report finding that fiber bowls advertised as compostable and used at fast-casual food establishments like Sweetgreen and Chipotle contained traces of PFAS.
A study published in the Environmental Science & Technology Letters journal looked at 10 composting locations in all three West Coast states, along with Massachusetts and North Carolina. All sites were commercial facilities, apart from one backyard composting pile. Sites that accepted foodware yielded PFAS levels 10 times higher than the others.
But unfortunately, PFAS is literally everywhere, and in 99% of American's bloodstreams. PFAS is in some food packaging, including some compostable food packaging, but it's literally everywhere else, too.
What is being done about this issue?
BPI, short for Biodegradable Products Institute, is an organization that reviews and certifies compostable products that meet ASTM D6400 and ASTM D6868 conditions for compostability. (ASTM is ASTM International, formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials, is an international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems, and services). BPI’s membership and their board of directors voted in November 2017 to approve changes to exclude products containing PFAS from certification. BPI-certified items not meeting that limit would be phased out by 2019.
And, as of December 31, 2019, BPI no longer certifies as commercially compostable any products that have more than 100 parts per million (PPM) of total fluorine (which is present due to the use of PFAS compounds in the products).
Unfortunately, according to Biocycle, recognized worldwide as an authority on organics recycling, it is very difficult to test for PFAS in composts as the EPA-approved laboratory procedures in use are those for drinking water. And even if you could test for it, there are no known methods for removing PFAS chemicals from composts other than to stop accepting feedstocks that contain PFAS. Given that it's in our water and food supplies, I'm not sure how realistic that is.
In summary, while compost from commercial composting facilities that accept food packaging may contain trace amounts of PFAS chemicals, unfortunately it's already in your soil to begin with. And in our water supply.
Eventually, we'll see more and more companies phasing out their PFAS-containing compostables, but there's a lot of it still on the market.
Eco-Products was the first compostable foodservice packaging manufacturer to create PFAS-free molded fiber compostable packaging. World Centric also now has PFAS free compostable molded fiber packaging.
How do I know if the foodservice or catering compostable packaging I have has PFAS?
The following types of compostable packaging do not have PFAS:
Fallen palm leaf
Compostable clear PLA packaging
PLA Coated Paper
World Centric's entire product line
Ecoproducts Vanguard line of bagase products
If the molded fiber packaging you are using only shows ASTM certification but not BPI certification, that's a good sign it does not meet the new PFAS certification standards.
You can also look up the product on BPI's website. Often the name of the manufacturing company is right on the container.
Some companies do not manufacture their compostable containers in-house; a third party manufacturers their products and then puts the other company's logo on it. You can always ask the company if their products contain PFAS chemicals. If they can't tell you, you probably have your answer.
Where Can I Get PFAS-free Compostables for My Next Event?
Pink Elephant Events, the waste diversion/waste management division of Pink Elephant Products and Events L3C, offers both World Centric and Eco Products' Vanguard line for your next wedding, picnic, nonprofit fundraiser, or other event, as well as bamboo, fallen palm leaf, and PLA coated paper disposables. We also offer bin rental, glass/paper/plastic event recycling, waste diversion reporting, and more.
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