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.

Ditching disposables
Alternative solutions to single-use food & drink packaging

Takeaway food & drink packaging in our environment 

 

Lots of takeaway food and drink packaging is made using polystyrene, or a mix of material such as paper and plastic. For example takeaway chip boxes are often made of polystyrene (commonly known as the trademark Styrofoam) and disposable beverage cups tend to have a plastic lining and paper or card outer. These materials are used because they are strong and versatile and are effective in keeping food and drinks warmer for longer.

Problems preventing recycling

Whilst plastic, polystyrene and single-use packaging are really convenient for takeaways and meals on-the-go, they are not good for our environment. Both polystyrene and plastic linings in paper cups are made from oil, requiring fossil fuels to be extracted and processed. Once made into our disposable packaging, plastic, paper and polystyrene often can’t be recycled because of contaminated from food and drink and plastic-lined paper packaging is either impossible or very difficult to recycle due to their mix of materials. As a result, much of this waste will go straight to incineration or landfill where it could remain for over 500 years as these items do not easily breakdown. Plastic and polystyrene not only pose are risk to the environment because they don’t break down but they also contain harmful chemicals. Takeaway packaging also makes up a significant proportion of litter in both urban areas and in beauty hotspots like Fidra’s hometown of North Berwick, posing a risk to wildlife from ingestion, entanglement and from the chemicals they contain.

Harmful chemicals in packaging

With growing public concern about plastic pollution, especially in coastal areas, Fidra recognises that more businesses are moving away from polystyrene and plastic packaging, with many opting for either paper and board or compostable alternatives. Whilst Fidra celebrates this transition, such food containers can have a chemical coating, made from PFAS (poly or per-fluorinated alkyl substances), which provides a grease- and water-resistant barrier. Despite health and environmental concerns about a number of chemicals used in paper and board Fidra believe there is insufficient regulation of paper and board food contact materials and the chemicals they contain.

Take a look at our project on PFAS and work on preventing chemical pollution for more information.

Read our Discussion Paper on compostable alternatives to polystyrene food packaging:

Read our Packaging Position Paper to find out more about our stance:

Read the summary of our ‘Waste Expectations: Trash Talk with Businesses’ event to find out more about our North Berwick case study:

Fidra's Packaging Preferences and Recommendations:

Fidra’s expertise and experience in developing sustainable solutions for food packaging and the circular economy has developed through local, national and international initiatives. This web page aims to summarise Fidra’s position on food packaging in a circular economy.

Fidra fully understand the complexities of packaging materials and coatings. Therefore, we feel it is helpful to present a hierarchy of preferences as shown in Figure 1 below.  Whilst Fidra urges individuals, companies and legislators to rethink our reliance on single use items the organisation recognises that there will be a place for single-use items in our society for some time to come.

  1. Fidra recommends that packaging is only used where necessary. An example of this would be for supermarkets to sell fruit and vegetables loose rather than in plastic or compostable packaging, whenever possible.
  2. Where packaging is needed Fidra recommends reusable containers that can be (re)filled in shops and takeaways to avoid the use of compostable, recyclable or disposable packaging.
  3. Where single use packaging is unavoidable Fidra recommends packaging that can be successfully recycled or composted, avoiding waste going to landfill or incineration. It is important that such products have no harmful chemical content which would contaminate compost or products made from recycled content.
  4. Where single use pakagaging cannot be recycled or composted (e.g. due to current lack of infrastructure)  Fidra would recommend the use of compostable items with no intentionally added chemical contamination. Fidra believe compostables are preferable to non-recyclable plastics which can have greater negative environmental impacts due to their non-renewable source, and further negative impacts when incinerated or when sent to landfill.
  5. Fidra’s least favoured option is single-use disposable, non-compostable products, such as items made from or lined with fossil fuel-based plastics. These should be a last resort and every effort should be made to minimise their use.

Polystyrene from the marine environment.

The ingredients…

There are issues with polystyrene and plastics throughout their life-cycle from production, to use and once it is thrown away. Polystyrene is a kind of plastic and like most plastic it is made from petrochemicals (fossil fuels). A key ingredient of polystyrene is styrene, which is a potential carcinogen 1, and can be released into the atmosphere and natural environment during the life of the product, resulting in environmental pollution and occupational health exposures. Polystyrene is also highly flammable and hazardous if not stored properly.  

Impacts on nature… 

Once plastics are made into items like takeaway cups and boxes, the chemicals in them can leach out 2 and be ingested by the consumer and animals in the environment. In addition, ingestion of microplastics by wildlife has been well documented, with microscopic plastic particles being confused as food.

Surveys by the Marine Conservation Society have shown plastics and polystyrene to be a consistent component of coastal litter over the last decade 3. Additional compounds and chemicals added to plastics during production, have the potential to enter the environment either by leaching from landfill or through the degradation of litter on land, in waterways and in the sea 4. Polystyrene and other plastics in the marine environment also adsorb pollutants from seawater, which creates an additional hazard to the additives already present and their degraded products 5. 

Waste streams…

Polystyrene and mixed material products are not easy to safely or responsibly dispose of, often ending up in landfill or being incinerated. Even where recycling facilities are available, much of the material will have been contaminated by food, drink and grease making it unsuitable for recycling.

Considering compostables, reusables and recyclables

Working with the local businesses, community groups and residents in North Berwick, the town we are based, Fidra we are looking into alternative options to the current materials being used in takeaway food and drinks receptacles. By working alongside all relevant stakeholders, we hope to find a suitable scheme that reduces, and indeed eradicates, these unsustainable and harmful materials being used in the town for takeaway items.

One option is for North Berwick to become an exemplar in using compostable food packing. Compostable products are made from a wide variety of raw materials, such as corn-starch, which are often waste products themselves. If disposed of correctly – in a food waste stream or through industrial composting – these items will biodegrade and will not be contaminated by leftover food.  

Although there are significant logistical challenges to this option, if set up well and with commitment from local businesses, communities and tourists alike, we feel that this would be a suitable and viable option for North Berwick.  The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 require that from the end of 2016 all business and organisations that produce over 5kg of food waste a week in urban locations, must segregate this as a separate waste stream. In time, this will include any biodegradable waste being sent to landfill from 2020. Therefore, establishing an effective system in North Berwick as soon as possible is something we are excited to be a part of.

Another option is for businesses and residents alike to lead by example and ditch disposables, reaching for their reusable cups and containers when they stumble to the commuter train in the morning or head to the harbour for chips in the evening.

Working with retailers

As well as looking for local solutions that may work in other communities or on a large scale we are also working with retailers to reduce the chemical burden on our environment that comes from food packaging.  Find out more about our work to get ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS  out of your packaging.

Inputting into Policy

Fidra work on policy and legislation in Scotland, the UK and EU. We have supported a deposit return scheme in Scotland, we have called for better protection from harmful chemicals in food contact materials and we have advocated for reform of extended producer responsibility schemes in the UK.

Local businesses team up to ‘close the loop’

Vegware’s Close the Loop system, which collects food waste and compostable packaging to convert to compost to be used on soil, has been taken up by two independent businesses, Steampunk Coffee Roasters and Archerfield Walled Garden. Both have found that using the system has encouraged them to examine their waste streams and make changes that have saved costs. 

Elly Douglas-Hamilton, Director of Archerfield Estates Ltd, comments “Working together with other local businesses like Steampunk means that we can share information and ideas and start translating these ideas into practical reality. I hope this is something we can encourage other businesses in doing and help us all to realise that perceived barriers are perhaps not as great as they seem.” 

Shrewsbury Cup 

Shrewsbury Cup is a Community Interest Company set up to eliminate single-use cups in the town of Shrewsbury. The concept is simple: Customers pay £1 deposit for a Shrewsbury Cup, enjoy their drink and then return the cup to any of the 20 participating café to get their £1 back.

New York 6

In January 2019, a law preventing the use of polystyrene products came into effect in New York City, banning food service establishments, shops and manufacturers to possess, sell or use EPS products, such as food and product packaging.  

The Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Mark Chambers explained “This is a pivotal and long-overdue step to protect New York City from the unnecessary damage Styrofoam does to our streets, water, and people.”  

Seattle 7

Since 2009, when Seattle’s ban on the use of EPS was introduced, the city has continued to lead by example on the battle against single use food packaging and items. A further ban on non-recyclable and non-compostable food packaging was brought into effect in 2010, and the introduction of a ban on all plastic straws and cutlery in July 2018 demonstrated their continued commitment.   

The City of Seattle require that all food service businesses use either compostable or recyclable alternatives, provide suitable bins for staff and customers to dispose of these products in, and are signed up for their waste to be collected by a collection service provider.   

1 National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services: Report on Carcinogens, Fourteenth Edition. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/styrene.pdf

2 Manalac et al(2010) Leaching behaviour of sulfonated polystyrene (SPS) from recycled Styrofoam. International Journal of Environmental Science and Development1(4), 368-370.

3 Marine Conservation Society UK: http://www.mcsuk.org/downloads/gbbc/2016/GBBC_2016_Report.pdf

4 Rani et al (2014) Hexabromocyclododecane in polystyrene based consumer products: An evidence of unregulated use. Chemosphere110.

5 Takada H, Mato Y, Endo S, Yamashita R, Zakaria M (2006). Pellet Watch: Global monitoring of persistentorganic pollutants using beached plastic resin pellets. Marine Pollution Bulletin52 (12), 1547-8.

6 nyc.gov: https://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/295-18/mayor-de-blasio-ban-single-use-styrofoam-products-new-york-city-will-be-effect

7 Seattle.gov: http://www.seattle.gov/util/forbusinesses/solidwaste/foodyardbusinesses/commercial/foodpackagingrequirements/