What Are PFAS?
PFAS are a collection of thousands of man-made chemicals that have been used in all kinds of consumer and commercial products since the 1940s. PFAS is short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, often referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment.
PFAS chemicals do not break down in the environment. They can remain in soils, contaminate drinking water sources, and enter our food chain.
What Is The Problem with PFAS?
PFAS are great for repelling oil, stains, grease, and water. Much like plastic, these very same properties mean that PFAS will not easily break down in the environment. The compounds are stable by design, they’re designed to last.
Due to their grease, stain, and water resistant properties, PFAS are added to many different kinds of everyday consumer products, from cleaning products to makeup, clothing, and even dental floss. Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene) is one of the best known PFAS and has been used to create the non-stick coating on pans since the 1950s.
Because these chemicals are used in so many different products, and the fact that they don’t break down easily, PFAS are everywhere. They can remain in soil, contaminate water sources, and eventually make their way into our food and our bodies.
Health risks to humans from PFAS exposure is currently uncertain. Tests in lab animals link PFAS exposure to health problems such as increased cancer risks, damage to immune systems, and reproductive complications (per CDC). The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) has measured blood PFAS in the U.S. population since 1999, and reports “Most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood”.
PFAS in Food Packaging
The water and grease resistant properties of PFAS can help make packaging leakproof and grease resistant.
Paper and fiber-based packaging is commonly used for take-out and food service because it is functional, affordable, and often preferred by customers over Styrofoam containers. However paper fibers are not naturally water or grease resistant. PFAS can be added to paperboard and molded fiber containers to create a barrier so that the grease from food doesn’t soak into the packaging.
Paper products are often accepted by compost facilities and PFAS used in products sent for composting are of particular concern. Paper mill waste, paper and card packaging coated for grease resistance, and coated molded fiber food service containers containing PFAS can cause problems for composters and the environment.
Because they do not easily degrade, PFAS can contaminate compost and re-enter the food chain when compost is applied to soil. It is difficult for composters to identify and remove PFAS-contaminated feedstock, and expensive to test for in finished compost.
PFAS-Free Compostable Packaging
PFAS are not compostable and therefore have no place being added to compostable packaging.
As plastic is replaced with more eco-friendly options it is critical that the materials used are safe for us and safe for the environment. Moving toward a circular economy requires addressing the use of potentially harmful chemicals.
Visit the U.S. Composting Council website to find out more about PFAS and the compost industry