Amy Hagan-Brown (Emmanuel College and former Smith College student)
Nina Maxine Gunther-Segal (freelance writer and former Smith College student)
Tania Taranovski (FINE)
What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of more than 12,000 synthetic chemicals primarily used to repel water, grease, and stains. They are widely used in foodware, food packaging, non-stick pans, clothing and other textiles, and more. PFAS are called "forever chemicals" because they do not break down in the environment (CDC). Because of their widespread use and persistence, PFAS are found in water, soil, and throughout the environment. PFAS also build up in the human body. In fact, most people in the US have been exposed to PFAS (EPA).
The Problem of PFAS in Institutional Foodware
Some common disposable and compostable foodware - such as plates, bowls, cups, pizza boxes, wrappers and containers - typically use PFAS to make these items hold up to liquids, oils, heat and moisture, making them convenient for institutional dining. Exposure to PFAS, however, even at low levels, is linked to serious health problems, including developmental delays in children, decreased fertility, increased risks of some cancers, and a reduced immune response, including reduced vaccine response (EPA). These risks are of particular concern in institutions, which serve sensitive populations at greater risk, including children (early childcare and K-12), teens and young adults (colleges), patients who are pregnant or of compromised health (health care) and incarcerated individuals (corrections).
Is This a Problem at My Institution?
The short answer is YES! Because PFAS are so widespread, there is a risk at every institution.
In response to concerns about the potential of disease transmission during the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions switched from in-person dining served on reusable plates and drinkware, to grab-n-go service in disposable packaging. We now know that standard food safety protocols sufficiently reduce the risk of disease transmission, but takeout service remains popular. Disposable and compostable foodware continue to be used in dining areas and for grab-n-go, making it imperative to 1. Learn more about foodware products in your institution and 2. Choose foodware that does not or is unlikely to contain PFAS.
How Can I Reduce Our Risks from PFAS in Foodware?
One way to measurably reduce the risks is to avoid using foodware that is likely to contain PFAS. As a general rule, reusables (especially those made of ceramic, metal, or glass) are best! But many factors, including student expectations, dining staffing, and a product’s overall environmental impact, volume, cost, disposal options, and availability can influence the best choice for your institution. Here are a few steps you can take to figure out how to keep PFAS out of your foodware.
STEP 2: Review this reference table to identify if your foodware is likely to contain PFAS.
|PFAS Risk: Low to None*||PFAS Risk: Unknown or High|
|Reusable: china, metal (e.g., stainless steel), glass||Compostables, molded fiber, wrappers that are not certified|
|Compostable: molded fiber or other products certified by GreenScreen, BPI, or CMA||No information or certification is provided by foodware vendor|
|Listed in the CEH database as a product with low to no PFAS risk (includes certified and tested products)|
|On the Environmental Working Group list of products that do not contain added PFAS|
*Note that although plastics, polystyrene, melamine and some other foodware options are unlikely to contain intentionally added PFAS, they have other toxicity risks associated with the materials or manufacturing processes. The GreenScreen certification considers the toxicity and chemical hazards of all ingredients in single use products that are designed to be compostable or recyclable.
STEP 3: If you are using anything other than china, glass, metal, or certified PFAS-free foodware, we also recommend you talk with your foodware suppliers. Communicate your preference for PFAS-free items, and let them know about specific product lines and/or certifications.
STEP 4: Don’t give up if you hit some roadblocks! You may need to educate your vendors, demonstrate the value to administrators, and work with students and dining staff. The resources below can help you with challenges. Together, we can reduce PFAS in our institutions, our environment, and our bodies!
- Toolkit for Ditching the Disposables (CEH)
Questions about COVID Safety:
- The Safety of Reuse During the COVID-19 Pandemic factsheet by Upstream
- Science Brief on Surface Transmission from the Center for Disease Control
Case Study: Smith College
Starting in the fall of 2021, FINE partnered with Smith College to look at the potential risks from PFAS in foodware in their dining halls, and how to reduce or eliminate those risks. Initial research efforts were led by Smith College students Maxine Gunther-Segal and Amy Hagan-Brown as a capstone project, and built on 2021 research on sustainable packaging waste in college dining at Smith and other campuses in the region.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith College Dining stopped using their reusable china dishes out of concern for safety, switching to a grab-and-go model and using compostable options where possible. PFAS are widely used in compostable foodware, however, to make the containers hold up to the heat, liquids, and oils of the food they contain. To reduce the potential PFAS exposure, Smith asked its vendors to source certified compostable foodware.
Over the course of their research, the students found that supply chain complications made it challenging to source PFAS-free foodware. It was also challenging to assess which products were likely to include PFAS, in part because many foodware manufacturers did not know or would not share if their compostable and other foodware products contained PFAS.
These findings were shared with the Smith College community, initiating student interest in and concerns about PFAS in foodware. At the same time, there was a growing waste problem across campus, made visible by the sheer volume, and exacerbated by problems in waste removal and labor availability.
More recently, Smith College has brought back resuable foodware, specifically china dishes for on-site dining and Ozzi resuable plastic containers for takeout. They are working towards eliminating all single use foodware.
This project was made possible through generous funding from the Environmental Protection Agency's Healthy Communities grant program.