A new group of restaurants, including Chick-fil-A, Nathan’s Famous, Starbucks, and Restaurant Brands International, which owns Tim Hortons, Burger King, and Popeyes, is promising to reduce the amount of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their food packaging.
The commitments follow testing by Consumer Reports that found the chemicals in bags of french fries, salad containers, and other materials from two dozen restaurants and grocery stores. A number of other restaurants, including McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Sweetgreen, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s, previously made similar commitments following pressure from advocacy groups like Mind the Store.
PFAS are often used as a cheap way to fortify paper containers because they excel at repelling the water and oil from a juicy burger or hot french fries. But some PFAS can pose health risks to diners, and they’re extremely resistant to environmental degradation.
Alternative packaging materials without added PFAS are generally less functional and more expensive. And in many cases they’re difficult to obtain because current demand doesn’t justify large-scale manufacturing.
Restaurant Brands International says it’s evaluating several alternatives that will provide the same “functional characteristics,” but the firm isn’t specifying what they are. A spokesperson only says the company is dedicated to using materials that are “safe for guests and employees.”
Meeting those goals may prove to be a difficult task. In a paper published last year, researchers from the US Department of Agriculture and the compostable food packaging company World Centric suggested that coatings using biobased polyesters like polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), and polylactic acid (PLA) are promising alternatives. But the authors concluded they’re expensive, hard to find, and don’t match the performance of PFAS.
Keith Vorst, director of the Polymer and Food Protection Consortium, an industry-funded food packaging research group based at Iowa State University, says he’s been trying for years to get his hands on a shipment of PHA to test its performance, but so far no company has been able to supply it for him. He says there’s not enough production to service the market.
Greg Curtzwiler, another researcher at the consortium, says his research on PBS shows that it works well as an oil barrier, but packages made with PBS can cost five times as much as similar packaging made with PFAS.
The market for PLA is more mature. The USDA and World Centric researchers call it the most affordable biobased polyester at about $2.20 per kg in 2020. PLA has also attracted investment from major companies. NatureWorks (a joint venture of Cargill and PTT Global Chemical) and a joint venture between TotalEnergies and Corbion can produce a total of more than 225,000 metric tons of PLA per year, and both groups are planning expansions. An LG Chem-ADM joint venture is also interested in producing PLA.
Curtzwiler says it’s easier to find PLA-coated food packaging, but all the biobased polyesters suffer from similar problems: they’re more expensive than PFAS alternatives and often not available in the quantities that food packaging manufacturers need.
Vorst says companies could also use a technique called super calendering, which is essentially squishing together paper fibers very tightly during manufacturing so they are less permeable. That process is also expensive compared with more typical production methods.
The researchers say the bottom line is that restaurants, packaging companies, and consumers will have to learn to live with higher prices and leakier food packaging if they want to avoid PFAS.
In several US states, new laws aim to limit the amount of PFAS in food packaging. For example, starting next year, companies in Washington won’t be allowed to use food packaging with intentionally added PFAS if there is an alternative that is safer, cost competitive, commercially available, and equally functional.
An initial assessment by the state’s Department of Ecology couldn’t find any viable alternatives for bags and sleeves, bowls, trays, french fry cartons, interlocking containers, or clamshells. The state did find suitable alternatives in a handful of cases where low-tech solutions would do the trick, such as cardboard pizza boxes, wax paper sandwich wraps, and clay-covered paper for french fry boats.
“There’s a tendency to want to look for a one-to-one, drop-in replacement,” says Lauren Tamboer, a Department of Ecology communications specialist who gathered information from private companies for the report. “We need to be asking ourselves … whether these chemicals were necessary in the first place.”
That state did consider PLA-coated packaging, but it didn’t make the cut because there wasn’t enough of it to meet demand. Tamboer says she expects alternatives to become cheaper and more widely available as more restaurant chains move away from PFAS.
“Think about the size of contracts that some of these huge retailers have with food packaging manufacturers. They are massive contracts,” she says. “When those things shift, it really moves the market quickly.”