PFAS-coated clothes that are thrown away will often end up either incinerated or in landfill. Unless incinerated at very high temperatures (>1000oC), fluorinated polymers could release more harmful PFAS during burning. PFAS of environmental concern have also been found in landfill leachate. PFAS is found in treated waste water from industrial and domestic sources and has been found in both rivers and groundwater. Conventional drinking water processes will not remove PFAS.Small quantities of PFAS will be removed during wash and wear of products containing PFAS. This includes fluorinated polymers used on stain-resistant coatings, and non-polymers that remain on clothes after production (Lassen et al. 2015).Non-polymer PFAS can build up in blood protein of animals, and is not always removed quickly. This means that predators eating PFAS-contaminated food will have higher levels in their bloodstream, and concentrations can increase up the food chain. Studies suggest that build up of PFAS is similar to those of other Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT.PFAS are estimated to be settling in arctic regions at rates of tens to hundreds of kilograms per year (25-850kg per year), depending on the specific PFAS chemical in question. Certain PFAS are released as gases to the environment and are blown a long way by wind and air currents in the atmosphere,. These gas PFAS will over time degrade to more persistent chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. This may be one reason why PFAS of environmental concern have been found in remote regions such as the Arctic as well as near PFAS production sitesPFAS including PFOS and PFOA have been found in air samples around Europe. The chemicals are found in small quantities, but appear in almost all samples tested. PFAS enters the atmosphere both from factories and the air inside our homes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17554424 Non-polymer PFAS are used in the production of fluorinated polymers. The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes generally releases these PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. They are very hard to remove during water treatment. Workers in textiles factories are some of the population most exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals.

PFAS in Compostable Packaging – why change is needed

Repeated studies have found high levels of harmful and persistent chemicals, PFAS, in moulded fibre compostable food packaging – the type quickly replacing plastic across the UK high-street. As we strive to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic, are we simply swapping a visible pollutant for a longer-lasting, more toxic chemical alternative?

 

PFAS in our food packaging

PFAS (per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) are a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals widely used across many different consumer products to provide functions such as water and grease repellency. In 2020, Fidra released a report which demonstrated for the first time that these hazardous ‘forever chemicals’ are present in a wide range of food packaging that people are buying and using every day in the UK [1]. These same PFAS permeate our bodies and our natural environment.

Surprisingly, the highest levels of PFAS (by an order of magnitude!) were consistently reported in moulded fibre compostable, ‘eco-friendly’ takeaway containers; the type we’re told are sustainable alternatives to plastic. Whilst the materials that make up the packaging will eventually physically degrade in the environment; the added PFAS does not. By their design, PFAS are so stable that they will continue to contaminate the environment, circulating throughout waters, soils and wildlife for many years. Some PFAS can take over 1000 years to degrade under normal soil conditions.

Photo by Agenlaku Indonesia on Unsplash

Compostability Criteria

Compostability of packaging is meant to be regulated via comprehensive test schemes and specifications that evaluate a product’s ability to degrade into non-toxic, natural elements to gain ‘compostable’ certification. The fact that we measured such high PFAS concentrations on items marketed as compostable shows that these criteria aren’t working. While the fibres of the packaging may degrade, the PFAS are transferred to the environment where they can remain for thousands of years – this doesn’t fit our impression of ‘compostable’. We have tried to understand how measuring such high levels of PFAS is possible on certified compostable packaging, but it remains a mystery. We would like to hear from suppliers about this issue and welcome further information.

Stricter standards are required to prove to consumers and retailers that the product is genuinely sustainable, resulting in some countries taking matters into their own hands. For example, in July 2021, Denmark enforced regulations that limited the PFAS content in all packaging, whether compostable or not, to the equivalent of 20 ppm TOF (Total Organic Fluorine – a way of measuring PFAS content). Below this limit, it is accepted as background contamination; above it, an indication that PFAS has been intentionally added.

The result in Denmark was very clear and very positive; they saw an immediate drop in the PFAS content of food packaging across even large global chains such as McDonalds. This leads to more uncomfortable questions, if suitable alternatives exist even for big companies such as McDonalds, why are UK consumers still being sold food in PFAS treated packaging?

More about compostables

The materials in many compostable packaging products will only break down if treated at certain composting facilities. In-vessel composting units (IVCs) are industrial-scale units that recycle and treat food and garden waste mixtures, with treatment taking place in an enclosed environment. To effectively break down compostable packaging, accurate temperature and humidity control are needed, with a minimum temperature of 60 –70 oC, which is not achievable in an open compost heap or regular garden compost container. Unfortunately, in the UK, the availability of IVCs that can adequately process compostable packaging is in short supply. A recent inquiry by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee [2] has raised questions about the current viability of this type of packaging, with inadequate treatment or recycling infrastructure in place for on-the-go fibre-composite food packaging.

The addition of PFAS by manufacturers to compostable packaging complicates this issue further. It can take temperatures over ~900oC to destroy the chemical bonds found in PFAS; even if they make it to the IVC, the PFAS remain in the final product. The resulting contaminated compost gets added directly to our soils and crops and can end up in food chains. Regardless of how the packaging is treated or disposed of, these harmful chemicals will find their way into our environment, creating a pollution problem that will last for generations.

There continues to be a great deal of public interest in the impact of plastic pollution, with many food suppliers making an effort to move away from single-use plastic products towards paper, card and moulded fibre packaging. There is even a target in the UK’s Waste and Resources Strategy for England that aims for all plastic packaging placed on the market to be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. It is therefore more important than ever that we recognise this issue and take action to ensure the current drive towards ‘sustainable’ packaging isn’t undermined by this hidden and persistent pollutant. Plastic-free and PFAS-free packaging already exists, we just need people to ask for it!

What can we do?

Many people choose compostable ‘eco’ packaging over single-use plastic products because they have the environment’s best interests in mind. However, by intentionally adding these forever chemicals, PFAS and food packaging manufacturers complicate consumer choice, sometimes even actively misleading us with greenwashing. At the moment, it is only truly environmentally beneficial if these ‘compostable products’ can be processed correctly upon disposal. As it stands, the waste stream in the UK is not yet ready for an influx of compostable packaging.

Regulation is the strongest motivation for companies to move away from PFAS. For example, in Denmark, the presence of PFAS in Food Contact Materials (FCM) is now prohibited, which has incentivised companies to move away from using PFAS compounds in favour of viable alternatives.

Fidra is calling for stricter UK policies that will prohibit the intentional addition of PFAS into food packaging. We are regularly engaging with retailers and suppliers to support them on their journey in trialling PFAS-free alternatives, and many of the supermarkets we’ve been engaging with have already taken voluntary action to phase out these harmful chemicals. Now we’re asking the UK Government to ensure these changes are extended across the whole UK food sector, including the frequently overlooked ‘food-to-go’ sector.

For those of us trying to reduce our exposure to PFAS, we recommend that people avoid the unnecessary use of disposable packaging where possible and choose instead reusable containers. You can find more details of Fidra’s ‘Packaging Hierarchy’ here.

You can also help us ‘Find the PFAS in food packaging. All you need is a pencil, some olive oil and your food packaging. Give it a go and let us know what you find!

The only way to stop the accumulation of these harmful and highly persistent chemicals in the environment and effectively protect people and wildlife is to cut out their use at source.

 


References

[1] https://www.pfasfree.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Forever-Chemicals-in-the-Food-Aisle-Fidra-2020-.pdf

[2] Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Plastic Waste (Point 83) (2021) Available from: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvfru/2080/208007.htm#_idTextAnchor016  [Accessed: 22/04/22].

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