Those popular burrito bowls at Chipotle and those takeaway salad bowls at Sweetgreens that see lunch rush lines going out the door and down the block have a dirty little secret, according to an independent investigation from the non-profit news site, New Food Economy.
The plain, beige fiber bowls that are designed to withstand grease so they don’t turn to mush when they get wet are touted for their durability and for being fully compostable. They are even certified by third-party groups like the Biodegradable Products Institute and they feel like they would turn back into dirt if they were mixed into a compost heap. Yet, New Food Economy, found that all of those molded fiber bowls contain PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAs are a wide-range of more than 4,000 fluorinated compounds that do not biodegrade.
The chemicals lining the bowls usurp the fully compostable claim, since those chemicals will never break down. When the bowls are tossed into a compost heap, the chemical leech into the ground. So, rather than make black gold for farmers, the bowls may actually be making toxic compost.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS are man-made chemicals that are “very persistent in the environment and in the human body — meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time,” as People reported.
To test the chemical composition of the bowls, New Food Economy visited 14 different restaurants of 8 separate chains in New York City. It found that every single bowl it collected was lined with fluorine. The worst offenders were bowls from two different Dig Inn (now Dig) locations which had more than 1,900 fluorine parts per million.
Then there’s the issue of human health. What does it mean for our health when we eat a salad off of a bowl lined with fluorinated compounds? That is not clear, but probably nothing. Exposure to the worst PFAS has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers as well as thyroid disorders and colitis, according to New Food Economy. Yet, those cancer-causing chemicals are either not present in the fiber bowls or they are not present at levels that approach toxicity. Furthermore, while the bowls contain the PFAS, any trace absorption into your food or onto your hands is minimal.
In a statement to Newsweek, Chipotle said the company only partnered with suppliers with proper FDA certification regarding fluorochemical sciences and food safety.
That is not to say the bowls are safe for the environment. PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” will not just rot naturally. So, you may handle a bowl for five minutes, but the chemicals inside it will stick around for generations, according to the New Food Economy.
The new findings will upset the infrastructure of municipal composters who have already collected thousands and upon thousands of fiber bowls. Furthermore, restaurant chains specializing in takeaway bowls will have to work with manufacturers on a different dish. They will have to work quickly, since San Francisco, a mecca for fast-casual dining, will ill effectively ban bowls that have been intentionally manufactured with PFAS starting on January 1st, as the New Food Economy reports.