A new report published today by eight non-profit organisations, including CHEM Trust, shows that ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS are present in disposable food packaging and tableware used by popular fast food chains and takeaway restaurants across Europe.
This new joint report, Throwaway Packaging, Forever Chemicals: European-wide survey of PFAS in disposable food packaging and tableware, illustrates the pervasive presence of harmful PFAS chemicals in our daily lives, by highlighting their use in consumer items that are casually used and discarded by people within a few minutes.
PFAS, the ‘forever chemicals’, are of great concern to CHEM Trust due to their widespread presence in the environment and their links to negative impacts on human health and wildlife. CHEM Trust highlighted these concerns in our 2019 briefing. Their use in disposable food packaging and tableware is a typical example of unnecessary and avoidable chemical use, which is incompatible with Europe’s zero pollution ambition.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, are a group of over 4,500 synthetic chemicals, known as the ‘forever chemicals’ due to their extreme persistence in the environment. They are used in a wide variety of consumer products and industrial applications, including food packaging, due to their ability to repel both grease and water.
What did we do?
During 2020, the Czech organisation Arnika coordinated a study involving eight non-profit organisations, including CHEM Trust, to investigate the presence of PFAS chemicals in disposable food packaging and tableware available in six European countries: The Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
42 disposable food packaging and tableware items made of paper, board, and moulded plant fibre (e.g. sandwich and bakery bags, takeaway food boxes) were analysed for PFAS content. The samples were purchased from targeted popular fast-food chains and takeaway restaurants, as well as supermarkets.
Two sets of chemical analysis were done by accredited and independent laboratories:
- Total Organic Fluorine analysis in order to estimate the total PFAS load.
- Targeted analysis of 55 PFAS chemicals in order to identify the specific PFAS used to treat the food packaging.
Our key findings
- PFAS are widely used in disposable food packaging and tableware in Europe. This includes food packaging from popular fast-food chains and takeaway restaurants.
- The chemical analysis shows that 32 out of the 42 items have been intentionally treated with PFAS chemicals.
- The highest PFAS concentrations were consistently found in moulded fibre products, (e.g. bowls, plates, and food boxes). These products were advertised as biodegradable or compostable disposable products, but the presence of highly persistent chemicals is in clear contradiction with this claim.
- All 42 analysed items had measurable levels of PFAS chemicals, including those that had not been intentionally treated with PFAS. This highlights the pervasive contamination of the food packaging production and supply chain with PFAS. The contamination could be related to cross contamination during the production stage and/or the presence of PFAS-contaminated recycled paper and board.
- Less than 1% of the total organic fluorine present in the PFAS-treated samples could be assigned to specific PFAS chemicals identified via targeted analysis. This means that over 99% of the total PFAS load remains unidentified.
Why is the use of PFAS in food packaging unacceptable?
The use of PFAS chemicals in disposable food packaging is not acceptable because:
- PFAS are the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to date. PFAS pollution generated by their use in high turnover, single use items will last for generations, impacting both people and wildlife.
- Scientific studies have associated exposure to a number of PFAS with severe adverse health effects, including cancer, and impacts on the immune, reproductive and hormone systems.
- Some PFAS can migrate from the packaging into the food, adding to the overall PFAS exposure of the general population from other sources such as drinking water.
Policy incentives drive the move away from PFAS
The same packaging item, a paper bag for french fries from the brand McDonald’s, was bought in December 2020 in Denmark, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. The UK and Czech samples had similar Total Organic Fluorine content of 480 and 470 mg/kg dw respectively. In comparison, the Danish sample had the lowest TOF content of all products analysed in the study at 5.5 mg/kg dw.
These results highlight two things:
- Alternatives to PFAS-treated takeaway packaging exist and are available on the market.
- Where regulation has been put in place, it has worked effectively to incentivise companies to move away from the use of PFAS. In Denmark, the use of PFAS in paper and board food packaging has been banned since July 2020.
This also highlights the lack of EU-wide harmonised regulation and protection when it comes to food contact materials, which CHEM Trust has been stressing for years.
Since the samples were collected and analysed, McDonald’s has announced their commitment to remove all added fluorinated compounds from their customer packaging materials globally by 2025. This commitment is welcome, however since McDonald’s was able to remove PFAS from its packaging in Denmark last year to comply with the new regulation, it could bring this timescale forward.
We are urging other companies to act ahead of regulations, and adopt a public policy with clear quantifiable goals and timelines for reducing and eliminating PFAS in all food contact materials in their shops/restaurants and supply chain.
What is the EU doing about it?
The European Commission published a new Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability in 2020 in order to deliver a toxic-free environment promised by the European Green Deal. The strategy includes a comprehensive list of actions to address PFAS pollution, including a commitment to phase out the use of PFAS in the EU, allowing their use only where they are essential for society. This is in line with the broader commitment from the strategy to ban the most harmful chemicals in consumer products, including in food contact materials, unless their use is proven essential for society.
Five European Member States, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden are working on a REACH restriction proposal for the PFAS group, aiming at restricting all PFAS in non-essential uses. In our response to the call for evidence for the restriction, we stated that a group restriction is the only way forward to manage PFAS chemicals, in order to:
- Prevent emissions of all PFAS chemicals;
- Stop the accumulation of these highly persistent chemicals in the environment and our bodies;
- Protect people and wildlife from exposure to these harmful substances.
CHEM Trust recommendations for EU policy makers
In the context of the European wide restriction on all non-essential uses of PFAS currently developed by five European Member states:
- We call for a rapid and broad restriction covering the full range of PFAS chemicals, including fluorinated polymers, and all non-essential uses including in food contact materials.
In view of the upcoming reform of the Food Contact Materials legislation:
- We call on the European Commission to introduce a general ban of the most harmful substances, such as PFAS, for all materials used for food contact (including paper, board, and moulded plant fibres) in order to guarantee that citizens and wildlife are evenly protected against hazardous chemicals.
CHEM Trust’s view
Dr Julie Schneider, CHEM Trust campaigner said:
“PFAS pollution is so ubiquitous that we found PFAS even in products which have not been intentionally treated with these chemicals. The same PFAS contaminants have been found in the Arctic air, snow and wildlife.
Non-degradable hazardous PFAS chemicals have no place in products that are used once and then thrown away. The casual use of highly persistent and harmful chemicals must stop if we are to safeguard the health of future generations and protect wildlife and the wider environment. Companies must clean up their act immediately.
Every year of delay in regulating this group of ‘forever chemicals’ increases the pollution burden. Some PFAS emitted today could still be present in the environment in several centuries.
A ban on all non-essential uses of PFAS chemicals should be urgently implemented.”
This study was produced in collaboration with the following organisations: Arnika, BUND, Danish Consumer Council, Generations Futures, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), and Tegengif-Erase all Toxins.
Full report: Straková, J., Schneider, J., Cingotti, N. et al., 2021. Throwaway Packaging, Forever Chemicals: European wide survey of PFAS in disposable food packaging and tableware. 54p
Executive summary: Straková, J., Schneider, J., Cingotti, N. et al., 2021. Throwaway Packaging, Forever Chemicals: European wide survey of PFAS in disposable food packaging and tableware – Executive summary. 11p
Summary of the results for the UK samples: CHEM Trust, 2021. Analysis of PFAS chemicals in takeaway food packaging from UK high street retailers. 13p
Companies who wants to remove PFAS from their products are invited to join ChemSec corporate movement ‘No to PFAS’
For more information about the study you can read our FAQ page.