With environmentalism being a hot topic around the world, companies, food establishments, in particular, have been trying to take responsibility over the past few years. Most of them have banned the use of single-use plastics like straws, plastic bags, and even plastic take out containers and cups. They have been replaced with products that are similar in purpose, but different in material. Straws are now made of reusable materials like bamboo, stainless steel, and glass; paper bags have taken over the place of to go plastic bags, and those plastic take out containers and plastic cups have been replaced by ones that are made of paper.
Most companies now even manufacture these take out boxes and paper cups so that they may be thrown in landfills and left to decompose. Of course, aside from being environment-friendly, these companies also have to prioritize the needs of their customers. So they lined these biodegradable boxes and paper cups with chemicals called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to prevent our food and drinks from leaking.
A recent study shows that these PFAS can leach out of the food packaging and end up in the compost. These then accumulate in plants and can end up in our bodies, although the medical risks are yet to be discovered.
The researchers have taken compost samples from ten facilities, seven of which accept biodegradable food containers and the other three did not. The amount of perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAA), a derivative of PFAS produced from its reaction with bacteria, was measured in each sample and it was found that those with biodegradable containers in the compost mix had about 3 to 9 times the amount found in those without the biodegradable containers. The concentration of PFAA in the compost mix with biodegradable containers ranged from 29 to 76 micrograms per kilogram of compost, while in those without the biodegradable containers, it was only 8. "There was a huge difference in the PFAS levels between those two groups," said Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist and public health researcher at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, who was however not involved in the study. "People expect the things they compost to break down entirely and become a sustainable source of nutrients for plants, so it's concerning that chemicals in compostable items can persist," she added.
The state of Washington was concerned about PFAS and its effect when mixed with compost, which why the research was first done. And now, partly because of this study, the state passed the Healthy Food Packaging Act, which bans PFAS in paper food containers effective 2022 provided that a substitute to PFAS will be found.