With single-use plastic tableware soon being banned in the EU, manufacturers and consumers are turning to alternative materials. But a new test study found chemicals of concern in popular non-plastic disposable products, many of which are marketed with unsubstantiated and misleading claims of being green, natural and “100% biodegradable”.
As of July 3rd, disposable plastic items are going to be a thing of the past in the EU, and manufacturers and consumers alike are frantically trying to find alternatives made from materials such as paper, straw, or bamboo. But unlike plastics, there are no specific rules for these kinds of materials yet, which means that their chemical safety remains unregulated.
We have previously reported on the presence of PFAS in paper and cardboard food packaging material. The study Towards Safe and Sustainable Food Packaging – published by BEUC, the European Consumer Organization – focuses on disposable, non-plastic tableware, and was conducted by consumer organisations in four countries: Altroconsumo in Italy, Forbrugerrådet TÆNK in Denmark, OCU in Spain, and UFC-Que Choisir in France. A total of 57 items were examined, including disposable plates and bowls made from moulded natural fibres, mainly bagasse (fibres from sugarcane stalks), paper straws, and palm leaf tableware.
Harmful substances found in more than 50% of the samples
The items were tested for the presence of three kinds of substances of concern: PFAS, fluorinated compounds also known as “forever chemicals”, since they are so persistent, linked to several adverse effects on human health; chloropropanols, a cancerogenic chemical that may emerge during the production of paper packaging; and pesticides, which may be present in plant-based materials, linked to cancers, birth defects and endocrine disruption.
More than half – 53% – of the tested items contained one or more chemicals of concern above the safe levels proposed by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (for PFAS), the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (for chloropropanols), and the European Commission (for pesticides). An additional 21% contained substances close to the limits.
The study also found that the popular plastic alternatives may be misleading to consumers, claiming to be “compostable” or “biodegradable”. PFAS chemicals are very persistent and don’t degrade for hundreds of years, which hardly makes any products containing them “compostable” – rather a compost contaminant.
“PFAS chemicals are very persistent and don’t degrade for hundreds of years, which hardly makes any products containing them ‘compostable’ – rather a compost contaminant”
“Green labels such as ‘natural’, ‘biodegradable’, or ‘compostable’ have no place on single-use dinnerware that contain persistent chemicals. Such bogus claims create confusion among consumers and make it difficult for them to identify the plates, straws or bowls that are more environmentally friendly than others. The EU needs to clean up the food packaging market from all misleading green claims”, says Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC, in the press release of the study.
The chemicals move from the packaging to the food
Another major issue is that many harmful chemicals don’t stay put in the food packaging material, but migrate into the food, putting the health of the consumer in jeopardy. ChemSec’s Senior Toxicologist Dr. Anna Lennquist weighs in on the decision to replace one source of pollution – plastics – with another – harmful chemicals in “green”, disposable tableware:
“It’s especially worrying that products made to seem more ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ than others are in fact just as bad – or worse”
“This is yet another sad example of regrettable substitution. It is important to move away from single-use plastics, but to switch to forever chemicals instead is surely going down the wrong path. It’s especially worrying that products made to seem more ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ than others are in fact just as bad – or worse”, she says.
The message to the EU from BEUC and their member organisations, supported by us at ChemSec, is clear:
“The results we [have published] prove that current EU food packaging rules fail consumers. It is high time the EU get its act together and comes up with strict food packaging rules that both protect consumers and the environment.”