On September 2, Denmark became the first country to completely ban PFAS from food packaging. These commonly coats microwave popcorn bags, baking paper, take-out containers, and are often used to make nonstick pans (like Teflon), waterproof clothing (like Goretex), and firefighting foam. Surfaces coated in PFAS become nonstick and greaseproof, which are great qualities for food packaging. But here’s the problem: PFAS chemicals have been linked to a range of health risks in humans including cancer, immune system disorders, reproductive abnormalities, and problems with fetal development.
PFAS are present in food packaging around the world. At fast-food chains like Chipotle and Sweetgreen, for example, “compostable” fiber containers are turning up in lieu of plastic ones. While single-use plastic continues to be a very bad idea and a scourge on the planet, and replacing it is, at first blush, a good thing, there’s a problem with the new bowls: They’re lined with PFAS.
The bowls are often marketed as compostable, but as awareness of PFAS grows, that feature is becoming a problem. One study of compost from five US states found PFAS levels as much as ten times higher in the soil from facilities that accepted food packaging. This year, composting facilities in Oregon sent a letter to a biodegradable packaging industry group, to announce that they wouldn’t take any more food packaging. The PFAS would contaminate the facilities’ compost, which could no longer be labeled as organic.
Right now, communities globally are confronting the problem of PFAS contaminating their water supplies. In towns near factories that manufactured PFAS, or used PFAS to make their products, local communities are learning they may have been drinking the chemicals for decades. The compounds are also turning up in water supplies near military bases and airports, which used PFAS foam to put out fires.