The ubiquitous compostable brown bowls found in fast-casual eateries like Chipotle and Sweetgreen have gotten praise for being good for the planet. But a new study found they could be very bad for your health, since they contain non-biodegradable chemicals that are linked to some types of cancers.
The research, which was done by New Food Economy, examined the molded fiber bowls at 14 locations of eight different restaurants and found that all of them tested positive for high levels of fluorine. So what does that mean? The bowls were treated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) compounds, which are manmade chemicals that never break down and can accumulate in the human body over time, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That’s why they’ve been dubbed “forever chemicals.” They’re actually what allow the bowls to stay dry and sturdy when they have hot, wet, and/or greasy food inside of them, since that would cause a typical paper product to disintegrate.
There’s more bad news: The EPA says that contact with PFAS is linked to several types of cancer, specifically kidney and testicular, as well as developmental issues, reproductive issues and other health conditions, including colitis and thyroid disorders. When people eat from food containers with PFAS, there’s a risk it could contaminate their food. As a result, PFAS are not found in products in the U.S. as much, but they’re obviously not being phased out fast enough. Congress even introduced a bill earlier this year to ban PFAS in all paper food containers, as well as anything that comes into contact with food, including packaging, cookware, and food processing and handling equipment. “The supply chain for food packaging is awash in PFAS-coated paper that is exposing millions of Americans to these dangerous chemicals,” Environmental Working Group senior scientist David Andrews, PhD, has said.
Another problem with PFAS is when they’re in food containers, the paper goods aren’t as eco-friendly as they’re touted to be. In Chipotle’s 2018 Sustainability Report, the chain said “100% of our bowls were made from compostable, plant-based fiber” and Sweetgreen has also claimed that their bowls are biodegradable and completely compostable. The New Food Economy’s report pointed out that the bowls that were composted contaminated food crops. And no matter what, the bowls still contribute to the fast-casual restaurants’ waste problems. The bottom line: The chemicals in these bowls will stick around a lot longer than your lunch.