Image: Deb Lindsey/Washington Post

by Miro Korenha and Alexandra Patel

While fast-casual restaurant chains Chipotle and Sweetgreen are praised for their consciously sourced ingredients and vegetarian-friendly options, their compostable containers have come under fire for containing harmful chemicals despite otherwise being seen as a more sustainable alternative to plastic and styrofoam. A recently-released report from the New Food Economy revealed that the takeout bowls used by Chipotle and Sweetgreen, contain cancer-linked “forever chemicals”. PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of more than 4,000 fluorinated compounds that are not naturally biodegradable. Rather than being 100 percent compostable as claimed by Chipotle and Sweetgreen, these bowls have actually been proven to be toxic to compost. 

The Study: Across 14 different locations, fiber bowls from 8 different restaurants – including multiple locations of Chipotle, Dig Inn and Sweetgreen – were tested and came back positive for high amounts of fluorine. According to Notre Dame University Chemist Graham Peaslee, these tests indicate the containers are being treated with PFAS compounds which give the paper containers the ability to hold up to hot, wet, and greasy food. 

Health Impacts:

– PFAS have been linked to various severe health conditions, such as colitis, thyroid disorders and kidney and testicular cancers.

– Called “forever chemicals”, PFAS persist in the environment and have been found to contaminate soil, water, and food.

Not So Sustainable: These fiber molded bowls are not exclusively used by just Chipotle and Sweetgreen but have become a staple within the foodservice industry. They were ushered in as a solution to the plastic and styrofoam waste problem but unlike styrofoam or wax-lined packaging, these fiber products have been certified as compostable and become a key component of many corporations’ social and environmental responsibility. But as the New Food Economy explained, these containers “aren’t truly compostable, as has been claimed. Instead, they are likely making compost more toxic, adding to the chemical load of the very soil and water they were supposed to help improve. And rather than degrade quickly, they contain potentially hazardous ingredients that never break down. Not in five years, and not in 500.”

Why This Matters: Despite their branding as being waste and pollution friendly, fiber bowls used by some food chains could actually be causing more harm than good to human and environmental health. However, perhaps disposable food containers are the problem themselves. Styrofoam is detrimental to the environment and plastic is the basis of a massive pollution crisis and since it’s unlikely that people will give up takeout, perhaps reusable takeout containers for which customers pay a deposit are the way to go. Companies like GO Box have found success with their reusable containers and could serve as a model for how we might cut down on needless waste and harmful chemicals while we’re at it. 

 

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