compostable food packaging, compostable takeaway packaging, takeaway packaging, compostable packaging, food packaging, forever chemicals

Does compostable takeaway packaging contain “forever chemicals”?

Food delivery services such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and Just Eat are considered some of the ‘winners’ of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. Notably, reports show fast-food delivery app Just Eat took over 46.4 million orders in 2020.

Obviously, increased food orders will require more packaging. This is just one reason sustainable alternatives, such as compostable takeaway packaging, are becoming a popular option.

Made from biodegradable plant-based materials, compostable packaging should harmlessly degrade into the soil over time. When disposed of correctly, the soil’s heat, moisture, light, and microorganisms help break the material down in a process that can take days, weeks, or years.

However, a recent study of 42 different types of fast food packaging showed per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances, (PFAS) present in 55% of the compostable samples tested. These substances, also known as “forever chemicals” are used in packaging to resist grease, oil, water, and heat. That said, they’ve been known to pose a serious risk to human health. 

In order to explore the topic of forever chemicals in compostable food packaging and the viability of its reputation as a sustainable alternative, I spoke to Jasmine Yu, a researcher at the University of Toronto.

What are forever chemicals?

Previously considered safe, PFAS were often used on packaging materials to make them resistant to water and grease. As research into these substances continues, they were dubbed ‘forever chemicals’ because of their inability to break down naturally and their resistance to destruction. 

Beyond this, an epidemiological study has linked long-term use of PFAs to several severe health issues. 

“Chemicals, such as PFAS and other additives, are added to products to improve their desired functionality,” explains Jasmine, who has been following the literature on claims of the biodegradability of plastics throughout her career. “Most commonly, they are added for their hydrophobic properties, as they make materials both water- and grease-repellent.

“However, it is well evidenced that these forever chemicals can migrate into the food that we eat through direct exposure, which may affect immune function, neurodevelopment, immune functions, as well as other health issues,” she explains further. 

In response to health and ecological concerns, 11 U.S. states have prohibited PFAS in the majority of food packaging. More so, two major restaurant chains have committed to eliminating PFAS by 2025

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Ensuring takeout packaging is free from chemicals

With the scientific literature clearly highlighting the harmful impact of forever chemicals, it’s clear businesses need to phase out materials that use PFAS as soon as possible. This can be done by switching to products that are certified to be PFA-free and labelled with their chemical composition.

However, Jasmine notes there is often confusion around bio-based and biodegradable products, and offers insights into the differences between the two. She explains plastic products are often labelled to indicate several factors, such as their chemical composition. 

“These labels also show whether the product can be recycled or if it is bio-based. Or whether it is biodegradable, and under which conditions. But, with the rapid advancement of ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ products in the market, there is significant variation in biodegradability performance along with inconsistent labelling.”

Jasmine explains further that it has become a challenge to substantiate compostable and biodegradable products and packaging claims – at least in the Canadian marketplace.  

“Currently, there is no regulatory framework for labelling plastics products as ‘bio-based’, ‘biodegradable’, or ‘compostable’,” she adds. “Therefore, manufacturers and suppliers may label their products with these sustainability and environmental-related claims without regulatory oversight.

“Misleading claims of the environmental performance of bioplastics, since these refer to a range of plastics that are bio-based, biodegradable, or both, adds to the overall consumer confusion around these materials. We need clear, evidence-based standards and regulations on bioplastic products.” 

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Which packaging certifications to look for

Luckily, there are a number of reliable third-party certifications which enable businesses to ensure these chemicals have been eliminated from packaging. 

The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)

The BPI is an independent organisation that certifies that packaging products are fully biodegradable in a composting environment. The certification shows manufacturers are meeting material standards and providing end users with proof the product is industrially compostable.

In order to be certified, products undergo rigorous testing. This ensures they are entirely free of PFAs in order to be fully compliant with local regulations.

CMA Certified compostable

The Compost Manufacturing Alliance is a partnership of commercial compost facilities and manufacturers that independently certify products and ensure commercial compostability. It’s technical review and field testing of compostable products ensures biodegradation. The organisation also tests to ensure there is no added PFAS, so these products meet or exceed many local ordinances or composter requirements.

OK Compost TUV

TUV Austria’s OK Compost Industrial & Home Compostability certifications provide proof that products will break down in an Industrial or Home Compost environment, respectively. This is a European Certification used by some manufacturers in place of or in addition to CMA Certification or BPI Certification.  

GreenScreen Certified 

GreenScreen Certified products are independent non-profit certified, and are free of PFAS and other chemicals of concern. GreenScreen Certified products promote the use of preferred chemistry by using the globally recognised GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals suite of tools.

Takeaway packaging is essential for the profitability of the food industry. It is a product which allows businesses to diversify their offering and increase profits by completing at-home deliveries. Beyond this, it was a crucial component in helping restaurants stay afloat throughout the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. 

It would be illogical to remove packaging from the food delivery process. However, there are ways to reduce the risks posed to both human and environmental health by opting for products which are PFA-free certified. 

As regulations concerning the use of PFAs are likely to tighten globally, it will become more of a have-to-do rather than an option for most businesses. Business owners should be mindful of these pending regulatory changes and the health and environmental concerns involved to ensure the takeaway packaging they are using is completely free of forever chemicals.