There’s a problem with “compostable” containers
On your way out of your favorite eco-conscious eatery, you toss your compostable dish into the bin. Makes you feel good, right? Not only are you full, you’re comforted by the idea that your old bowl won’t end up as landfill. Instead, it will decompose back into the earth just as the manufacturers intended.
Wrong. It turns out that while these popular “compostable” containers may be convenient, they don’t exactly disintegrate into nutritious worm food. In fact, they leave behind harsh chemicals in the process of breaking down. Fortunately, new technology could make food packaging disposal more sustainable and safer.
Those earth-colored single-use to-go bowls that have become a hallmark of conscientious eateries, like Chipotle and SweetGreen, actually contribute to toxic pollution. A recent study conducted by The New Food Economy reports that compostable dishware, specifically molded fiber containers, do technically break down. But they’re laced with PFAs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, conveniently known as “forever chemicals.”
PFAs have a purpose. They allow containers to hold food while preventing grease from seeping through the fiber and onto our laps or car seats. Used since the 1950s in everything from non-stick cookware to fire-fighting foams, PFAs are a broad class of chemicals persistently found in our bodies and in the environment. These chemicals don’t break down in the course of our lifetime, or in many lifetimes. In fact, they don’t have any known half-life.
While the health effects of ongoing exposure to PFAs are still being studied, they are serious and range from an increased risk of cancer to interference with hormonal cycles. One alarming metric investigators found is that the concentration of PFAs in molded fiber products is more than 10 million times the safe exposure limit in drinking water set by the Centers for Disease Control. (Yikes.)
We are exposed to these chemicals when we eat the food that has come into direct contact with the chemically laced dishware. We get it through the finished compost as well, which might be applied to agricultural crops. PFAs migrate from contaminated compost to our soil and waterways. In short, the molded fiber products that were developed as a better alternative to styrofoam and plastic, are most definitely not.
Restaurants scrambling for alternatives
The study was news to the many restaurants, cafeterias, and dining halls who rely on “compostable” dishware, in part because the production and sourcing of the raw materials often occurs in other countries. Even third-party compost certifiers, like the Biodegradable Products Institute, was unaware of and did not test for fluorination of molded fiber products.
Last year, San Francisco became the first city to ban molded fiber products laced with PFAs. Denmark soon followed suit and became the first country to outlaw their use. The Biodegradable Products Institute has since revised its certification requirements and by the start of the new year will not certify any products that contain more than 100 ppm of fluorine. By way of comparison, the study found that molded fiber dishware contains 10 to 20 times more than this limit. Groups like the Toxic Action Center and Clean Production Action are also working to close policy loopholes, raise awareness, and find solutions to PFA pollution.
GRASS IS GREENER
There is at least one promising alternative. By next year, Genera Energy’s earthable fibers®, which is made from a variety of grasses, will be on the market. It’s expected to be the largest sustainable solution yet for food-grade packaging in the U.S. and recently secured $118 million to open its first manufacturing facility.
Genera will partner with local farmers to use perennial grasses, like Biomass Sorghum, Switchgrass, and Wheat Straw. It maintains that grass farms will provide a wildlife habitat, limit soil disturbance, and enhance carbon sequestration thanks to its deep rooted crops. In a statement to Stone Pier Press, Genera says it recognizes the problem of chemical additives and is “currently testing some commercially viable non-PFAs options.”
taking down the takeout problem
Genera is coming, and other better options are likely on the horizon, too. But where does that leave us in the meantime?
Paper containers are better, albeit imperfect. Many paper and cardboard products only hold food and drink because they’re lined with a thin layer of plastic. About half of all composting programs across the nation accept plastic-coated paper products. But there is still debate over whether these products truly break down into compost or instead contribute to harmful micro-plastic pollution.
Request washable dishware when there’s a choice.
Encourage restaurants to compost its food. Forty-five percent of all landfill waste is attributed to food and food packaging. Only a dismal 3 percent of food products makes it into industrial composting facilities.
Bring your own reusable containers. This is, admittedly, for the truly motivated. But many more people are making a habit of bringing coffee mugs to cafes. Maybe start by doing that.
Resist the to-go culture entirely, and discover the slow food movement. Conceived in the 1980s to counter the trend towards costly convenience, the movement envisions a new food economy that is “good,” “clean,” and “fair.” Slow Food believes meals are best eaten patiently, and leisurely.
Emily Castle is a News Fellow from the Greater Philadelphia Area.