The iconic beige bowls that have taken the restaurant industry by storm for their “compostable” nature in the popular wave of fast-casual dining have been found to contain non-biodegradable chemicals that are linked to certain cancers.
In a new investigation by New Food Economy, the outlet conducted extensive testing on the molded fiber bowls from 14 locations of 8 different New York City restaurants — including Chipotle and Sweetgreen.
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Their research found that all of the bowls tested positive for high levels of fluorine. Experts conducting the testing with the outlet explained that this find indicates the bowls were treated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) compounds.
According to the United States 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.”
New Food Economy notes that these compounds, sometimes called “forever chemicals,” are what help the bowls “hold hot, wet, and greasy food” that would normally destroy a paper product. However, the PFAS’ presence in the bowls reveals that they are not as environmentally conscious as advertised.
In Chipotle’s 2016 Sustainability Report, they indicate their plan to introduce “compostable burrito bowls at all locations by 2018,” and in their 2018 Report that confirmed that “100% of our bowls were made from compostable, plant-based fiber.”
A representative for Chipotle did not address the new study directly, but tells PEOPLE in statement, “we are committed to using safe and sustainable food packaging and only partner with suppliers who make fluorochemical sciences and food safety a top priority. These suppliers operate under strict guidelines set forth by the FDA, and have all provided Chipotle with certification that all raw material and finished pulp products fully meet regulatory requirements.”
Sweetgreen has also been adamant of their bowl’s bio-degradability, even tweeting at a customer in 2017 that their “takeout bowls” are “100% compostable!”
In addition to the bombshell that bowls are actually contributing to the industry’s massive waste problem, the EPA reports that exposure to PFAS can lead to severe human health conditions, including cancer, developmental issues, and reproductive harm.
The New Food Economy specifically notes that the PFAS are known to be linked to health conditions including colitis, thyroid disorders, and kidney and testicular cancers. Due to their public health implications, the outlet reports that they “have been mostly phased out of production in the U.S.”
In fact, earlier this year members of Congress introduced a bill to ban the use of PFAS in any paper food containers, as when people eat from PFAS treated containers there is a chance the chemicals could be transferred to their food.
Since the bowls were advertised as compostable, these bowls have also been contaminating compost sites with PFAS, which means they have ultimately contaminated food crops, New Food Economy’s report included.
Despite its harmful effects, the outlet notes that for right now there is no “commercially viable” alternative for the restaurants.
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