Researchers say chemicals known as PFAS are used in the bowls and can cause health and environmental problems.
In an effort to reduce waste and its subsequent impact on the environment, many restaurants that offer takeout or delivery options are taking a look at what they can do to appease consumer demand to leave the planet at least slightly inhabitable for future generations.
In California, for example, diners no longer automatically get a plastic straw with their beverage. They have to ask, while some cities have outright banned them, requiring straws be made of paper or other biodegradable materials.
In Berkeley, a small pilot program is set to launch in September that allows people take metal cups to go from coffee shops or restaurants, in the understanding they’ll bring them back so they can be reused.
Other larger restaurant chains are looking at more scalable options, such as eliminating styrofoam and reducing the amount of non-biodegradable plastic handed to customers on their way out the door.
Some companies like Chipotle and Sweetgreen have been using cardboard-molded bowls for their to-go and delivery orders, urging customers to discard them in the compost bin rather than the recycling bin or garbage can.
But a recent report suggests these items contain a chemical that’s not only bad for the Earth but for the people who live here as well.
The New Food Economy — a nonprofit newsroom that covers “the forces shaping how and what we eat” — says these bowls contain fluorinated compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
These are a large class of chemicals that have mostly been phased out of the U.S. food system at the request of federal regulators.
With testing done by Notre Dame chemist Graham Peaslee, the New Food Economy recently reported that fiber (i.e. cardboard, bamboo, etc.) bowls from multiple locations of Chipotle, Dig, Sweetgreen, and restaurants from a food court in New York City showed high levels of fluorine.
That indicates the bowls were treated with enough PFAS compounds that they accounted for up to “0.2 percent of its total material.”
Healthline reached out to Chipotle and Sweetgreen, but neither responded to our requests for comment.
Because of the trendy, environmentally friendly message the bowls send to the consumer and the chemicals’ link to serious and preventable diseases, the nonprofit reported that scientists are concerned about what it could mean for the environment and human health.
According to the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council, PFAS were first invented in the 1930s and used as nonstick coatings.
Because they’re impermeable to grease, water, and oil, PFAS have been used commercially in stain-repellent treatments for fabrics, carpets, and leather, as well as for firefighting foam and greaseproof food-contact paper similar to the newer cardboard to-go bowls.
Greg Altman, chief executive officer and co-founder of Evolved by Nature — a chemistry company that’s replacing chemicals like PFAS with molecules found in silk — says the use of PFAS began growing post–World War II because of how well they keep out water and grease.
“Nothing sticks to them,” he told Healthline.
But they’re also responsible for Superfund cleanup sites across the globe. They also have contaminated water sources and break down into cancer-causing agents in the ocean.
That means their use now has lasting impacts on the future health of the planet and other living beings that inhabit it.
“It’s really deeply connected,” Altman said.
Due to their widespread use in different applications, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency have historically been concerned about different levels of contamination throughout the food chain.
The chemicals can enter our world when crops are irrigated with water that has been contaminated by PFAS, perhaps from a nearby industrial facility that uses PFAS. Or groundwater can become contaminated when firefighting foam is used in the area.
“To a lesser extent, PFAS can also come into contact with food as a result of the limited authorized uses as food contact substances,” the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
And PFAS don’t biodegrade. At all. Once they’re made, they’re essentially here forever.
That’s where new concerns come in over the molded cardboard bowls. But Altman says companies don’t know all of the chemicals used in their packaging because they’re protected by trademarks.
“Most brands don’t have visibility about the chemicals in the barrel of chemicals,” he said.
Besides not delivering on their bowls’ ability to fully biodegrade, PFAS also carry significant risks of potential health effects.
Dr. Samantha Radford, an exposure scientist at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania who writes at Evidence-Based Mommy, said PFAS are good at preventing the wet parts of food — such as the salsa or sour cream in a burrito bowl — from prematurely breaking down the container.
They also have a half-life of four years inside the human body.
“A little bit of the chemical can leach into the food,” Dr. Radford told Healthline. “We’ve known that what they break down into was dangerous. The problem is that these chemicals are so helpful.”
But they’re also problematic. Radford said PFAS can enter a person’s body from food eaten from one of the so-called biodegradable bowls. It then breaks down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is “particularly dangerous.”
PFAS and PFOA have already left a noticeable mark on the U.S. population.
A 2017 study conducted by researchers at chemical manufacturer 3M analyzed blood samples from 616 adults who had donated blood to the American Red Cross from 2000 to 2015.
PFOA was by far the leading chemical detected in those blood samples, although those levels from declined since 2000, when 3M announced a voluntary phase-out of PFOA and PFOS-related products.
Even though it was an industry-funded study, researchers noted there isn’t complete data to fully understand how their use impacts life on Earth.
“While PFOS and PFOA concentrations have declined in the United States general population and elsewhere, and extensive research of levels of PFAS in environmental matrices has been published, significant gaps remain in the reporting of general environmental trends and correlation to human exposure levels,” the researchers noted.
PFAS and their subsequent broken down counterparts can also cross the placental barrier, meaning a mother who consumes PFAS can pass it on to her child. That includes through breast milk.
PFAS and PFOA have been linked to increases in preeclampsia, high cholesterol, asthma, thyroid disorders, and other conditions.
“It’s going to affect children more than adults,” Radford said.
Radford and other experts suggest avoiding PFAS-containing bowls and other substances, especially if you’re breastfeeding, pregnant, or are planning to become pregnant in the next four years.
But that can be challenging, she said, considering how the U.S. food system works. Items are put on the market without testing if they’re safe, and agencies typically only respond after people have been exposed to harmful chemicals.
“That’s just part of life now,” Radford said. “You can’t escape it unless you live in a bubble.”