In a bid to be more eco-conscious, some restaurants have ditched its plastic and styrofoam dishes for more biodegradable options. And although this is a noble effort, a new report warns Chipotle and Sweetgreen's biodegradable bowls could contain cancer-linked chemicals. Here's everything you need to know about this concerning report.
There's a good chance you've encountered the aforementioned bowls before — they're typically beige, earthy-looking, and thinner than cardboard but thicker than paper. These microfiber bowls hold everything from leaky salads to bursting burrito bowls, and everything in between. And while these containers might be compostable, the chemicals used to make them are not.
An investigation conducted by The New Food Economy, findings which were published Monday, tested these molded fiber bowls from 14 locations at eight different New York City restaurants, including the popular food chains Chipotle and Sweetgreen. All of the bowls reportedly tested positive for high levels of fluorine, meaning they were treated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) during production, according to Gizmodo.
So what's the problem? PFAS, or forever chemicals as they're more commonly called, are a group of 5,000 synthetic chemicals that are oil, water, and heat-resistant, according to EcoWatch. These particular chemicals don't break down in the environment and can take an extremely long time to leave the body, according to HuffPost.
David Andrews, a Ph.D. toxicologist and senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group told the publication: “The half-life of PFAS is on the order of four to five years on average. That means if you ingested some today, in four or five years only half that amount would be gone. They’re also called forever chemicals because they don’t break down in the environment.” Yikes.
Aside from cancer, PFAS can potentially cause developmental issues, reproductive harm, compromised immune systems and other health problems, according to the Environmental Working Group. And, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, these man-made chemicals are "“very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time.”
The findings are still new, so the complete health ramifications are not widely known, according to New Food Economy. But as these biodegradable bowls decompose, they leach out harmful chemicals and further pollute the water and soil environmentalists aimed to save in the first place.
In response to the findings, Chipotle tells Romper in a statement via email:
As evidenced in Chipotle’s Sustainability Report, we are committed to using safe and sustainable food packaging and only partner with suppliers who make fluorochemical sciences and food safety a top priority. These suppliers operate under strict guidelines set forth by the FDA, and have all provided Chipotle with certification that all raw material and finished pulp products fully meet regulatory requirements.
Additionally, a rep for Sweetgreen tells Romper via email:
We take these allegations very seriously and I appreciate your concern.
I want to assure you that the health and safety of our guests is the number one priority at Sweetgreen and our supply chain team is dedicated to providing packaging solutions that are both safe and sustainable. The bowls used in our restaurants are not only certified to be compostable but are also approved for food contact by the FDA. Our bowls also undergo independent, third-party testing and meet all regulatory requirements.
We are dedicated to ensuring your safety and continuously explore new, innovative packaging solutions that hold true not only to guest safety but also to our commitment to sustainability.
Unfortunately, there aren't any immediate alternatives to microfiber bowls that are biodegradable, free of PFAS, and sturdy enough to hold food. And while biodegradable bowls might have made consumers feel better about getting their food to go, it seemingly hasn't helped the environment as intended.