Sue Chiang: The Foodware Conundrum

Posted by Sue Chiang on Wednesday, May 27 2020


Have you ever thought about the tons of disposable foodware used and discarded around the country every day? My work at the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) involves working with large public and private purchasers to leverage their collective buying power to eliminate a group of extremely persistent chemicals known as PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) from single-use foodware. PFAS’ essential function is to impart water- and grease-resistance to the foodware. Partnering with these purchasers is effective at chipping away at the massive demand for PFAS-containing products. 

Forever Chemicals 

You may have heard of PFAS if you saw the non-fiction, Hollywood film, “Dark Waters” starring Mark Ruffalo. You may also recall the news about PFAS contaminating the drinking water of millions of people across the US, or about Sweetgreen and Chipotle using compostable bowls containing PFAS*. The problem is that they can stay around in our environment for thousands of years, which is why they have been nicknamed “forever chemicals.” This group of chemicals is associated with an array of adverse health effects such as hormone disruption, increased cholesterol levels, effects on the immune system, and increased risk of cancer. Needless to say, these chemicals are an existential threat to the health of every human on Earth

Testing for Forever Chemicals in “Sustainable Products”

In 2017, CEH began testing a variety of products such as single-use plates, bowls, clamshell containers and multi-compartment food trays to identify which ones contain these fluorinated chemicals of concern. Among the products we tested, all of the “molded fiber” products (made from agricultural waste such as sugarcane (bagasse), wheat straw, recycled paper and other fibers), consistently showed high fluorine levels (indicating likely PFAS). Unfortunately, these products are the ones that sustainability-minded people and companies tend to buy because they are often marketed as compostable and more environmentally preferable.  But this is not the case.

Many zero waste programs initially focused on the amount of waste diverted from the landfill;  under this framing, in the realm of food service, it wasn’t necessary to reduce the amount of single-use as long as it could be recycled or composted. With mounting concern over the enormous quantity of single-use plastics polluting the environment (and how they generally aren’t recycled), compostable products are increasingly seen as an easy solution. However, we currently don’t have the infrastructure (industrial composting facilities) to properly manage compostable products in the majority of communities. Moreover, these products have challenging performance requirements -they are expected to stay intact and contain all types of food but then also to break down quickly when no longer needed. The containers may be compostable, but PFAS are not. Once these chemicals are out in the environment, they are extremely difficult to clean up or eliminate so it is best to avoid them from the start.

While manufacturers are starting to produce alternatives to PFAS in molded fiber and other paper/fiber-based food service ware products, we don’t know much about what they are using instead as a replacement. For such seemingly simple products that are used only briefly and then thrown out, they will have lasting impacts on our health and environment. Most compostable bioplastics (such as Polylactic Acid or PLA) will unfortunately act like regular petroleum-based plastics if it gets into the ocean. All of the various single-use products have some type of drawback. So, it is important to look for ways to avoid using them whenever possible. 

Universities, cities, and now even some countries are starting to phase out single-use plastics, but what will they switch to? Ideally, we should phase out single-use plastics and encourage the development of alternatives that are manufactured with and contain inherently safer chemicals. In addition, we should incentivize and transition to reusables to the maximum extent possible. Some are already taking steps in that direction: for example, under UCLA’s recently passed policy, locally compostable or reusable alternatives will be provided only upon request, and the campus will shift over time to only reusable alternatives for all dine-in eaters. University of California, Berkeley went even further and has committed to eliminating all non-essential single-use plastic with viable alternatives by 2030. This goes beyond food service ware and will cover a wide range of products and packaging used in campus academics, research, administration, and events. New businesses and business models are emerging to pilot reusable foodware services and systems in different parts of the country such as Vessel, Coffee Cup Collective and Dispatch Goods.

While we work with purchasers from a wide range of sectors such as government, business, higher education, and healthcare, CEH has a special focus on K-12 schools - to support their use of safer, more environmentally preferable food service ware options and encourage a longer-term switch back to reusables. Schools across the country are throwing away millions of disposable trays and food service ware products every year. Many are still using polystyrene foam (“styrofoam”) products while others are using “compostable molded fiber trays” --with PFAS. The good news is that since we first started working on this project, some molded fiber trays commonly used by schools have been reformulated to no longer contain PFAS. We have been hosting educational sessions featuring schools that have either successfully switched to reusables or are in the process of trying to make the switch. Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) in California successfully transitioned out of single-use to reusable foodware in 12 elementary schools this past fall (2019). Using a central kitchen distribution model, PAUSD is estimated to earn an annual net savings of $25,000 -- after the purchase of reusable baskets, stainless steel sporks, and durable clamshells. Moving to reusables will result in financial savings and will also engage the students, staff, teachers and larger school community in more sustainable practices.  

CEH has been hearing from students, parents, teachers and others around the country who are excited and inspired by these stories. We are collecting information from schools to understand what types of food serviceware are used around the country. Please help us by sharing this national K-12 school foodware survey with your local district or with your colleagues, family and friends. 

If you are concerned that your organization, school or local restaurant might be using food service ware that contains PFAS, please check out our public database of products, our other resources for purchasers, and help spread the word. 

*Sweetgreen and Chipotle have both pledged to have PFAS-free compostable bowls at all of their locations by the end of 2020.

Sue Chiang is the Pollution Prevention Director at the California-based Center for Environmental Health. She has spent her career working on a variety of environmental health issues that involve researching toxic chemicals and their potential effects on our health. Sue is passionate about identifying more comprehensive health protective strategies that look upstream and prevent the use of toxic chemicals in the first place.


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