“Green” food packaging in Canada is actually not better for the environment like it suggests, according to a shocking study from Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
“Packaging for “compostable” bowls represents a regrettable substitution of single-use plastic food packaging” because they carry highly toxic and harmful chemicals called per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), researchers said in a study published Tuesday.
The report goes on to say PFAS are human-made chemicals used globally and are composed of over 4,700 individual compounds. For decades, the compounds have been used in food packaging to allow for grease and water repellency in containers. Out of the different types of compounds in PFAS, a chemical called 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (FTOH) is the most dominant and can be “transformed to compounds of toxicological concern.”
The research was gathered from 42 samples of compostable food packaging from food retailers in Toronto, from February to March 2020. Samples included “compostable” fiber bowls, sandwich and burger wrappers, popcorn serving bags, and dessert and bread wrappers. Trace levels of PFAS were found in 26 per cent of the samples.
Researchers have found there are negative health and environmental consequences of PFAS used in food packaging and the results have led to legislative changes in other countries.
For instance, Denmark banned cardboard and paper containing PFAS in their food packaging in 2020. Last year, the United States passed regulations banning the use of PFAS in food packaging in 11 states. These are only a handful of examples among other cases involving the removal or prohibition of these chemicals worldwide.
Though other countries have passed laws regarding the use of PFAS, Canada is still “far from transparent and does not include a publicly available list of PFAS that are restricted or that can be used in these materials, as is done in the U.S.”
HEALTH RISKS IN PFAS
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has reported a variety of harmful health effects caused by PFAS. These include increased cholesterol levels, changes in live enzymes, increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, small decreases in infant birth weights, and decreased fertility, among others.
The Clean Water Action campaign adds PFAS can remain in humans and in the environment for a long period of time. PFAS are incredibly resistant and practically incapable of degradation in the environment or in the human body.
PFAS IN COMMON FOOD PACKAGING
In 2022, the Canadian government prohibited the manufacturing or import of single-use plastics in food service, and in turn, restaurants opted for “green” alternatives, such as plant fiber-based food packaging that contain high concentrations of PFAS.
Food packaging containing high levels of PFAS include pastry bags, microwave bags, and molded fibre bowls used for burritos, salads and other take out foods.
“…Some molded fiber-based food packaging requires large quantities of PFAS to be mixed into the raw pulp to confer mechanical strength and prevent disintegration upon contact with liquids,” the study said, which suggests these types of bowls need PFAS in order to prevent leakage.
Researchers are hoping the results of this study will invoke government bodies and private entities to discontinue the use of PFAS. However, they did not suggest an alternative solution for take out containers.