Better living through chemicals: Weighing risks and benefits in food packaging and beyond: Page 2 of 2

“Certain PFASs, specifically fluorotelomer-based products, are used to prevent oil and grease from seeping through food packaging materials. This is especially useful for paper and paperboard packaging used with high-oil content and high-grease content foods.”

This sounds perfect for carrying home your French fries, hamburgers and other fast-food fare in those environmentally friendly “green” paper containers. At this point I’m thinking that EPS (Styrofoam) clamshells sound a whole lot healthier!

Fluoropolymers are another category of PFASs, which the FluoroCouncil said are used in repeat-use food contact applications such as tubing and hoses in soda and ice cream dispensers and components of food processing equipment such as gaskets, seals and filter.

Companies that manufacture these products in the United States, Japan and Europe have “worked with regulators around the world, testing their products to ensure they meet applicable health and safety standards for use in food packaging materials and other food-contact applications and are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as ‘food additives.’”

In spite of that, about 10 years ago, major manufacturers, working with the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory bodies, began to “phase out PFASs of concern—PFOA and long-chain fluorotelomer-based products—a move that has been completed.

“It is well-known and generally accepted that the polymeric products used in these applications do not represent significant risk to health or safety,” said a statement in the FluoroCouncil’s commentary on the use of these chemicals in food packaging. “The degradation products of these short-chain fluorotelomer-based polymeric products have significantly improved health and safety profiles compared to the previous long-chain fluorotelomer-based products. For example, the degradation products used in food packaging are less toxic and are much more rapidly eliminated from the body.”

In 2016, the “FDA recognized the distinction between now-banned long chain fluorotelomer-based products and the current short-chain fluorotelomer-based products” stating that “. . .  extended perfluorinated alkyl chains less than eight carbons in length [short chain] do not [demonstrate biopersistence in chronic feeding studies].”

Here we are, once again, facing a conundrum caused by replacing plastic, the current scourge of the earth, with materials that ultimately are found to carry potential health risks—coated, compostable paperboard food containers. Pressuring fast food chains and grocery stores to get rid of paperboard compostable food containers—as these groups once pressured them to get rid of plastic/Styrofoam containers—has also resulted in finding a chemical these groups don’t like.

By ignoring the science of fluorines/fluorides, which are ubiquitous in our daily lives in products such as toothpaste, mouthwash and drinking water, these advocacy groups are showing that they are not really after the chemical itself but are attacking the packaging industry. Perhaps they have a better alternative to plastic and paperboard for food packaging, but I doubt it.

The FluoroCouncil noted that while there are non-fluorinated alternatives, there are no alternatives for compostable fast-food packaging that is oil- and grease-resistant, and these properties do not prevent the packaging from being recycled or from being compostable. As I’ve noted before, in most cases the alternatives to plastics end up being less “green” and eco-friendly than the plastic materials they are replacing.

The best alternative material to compostable paperboard packaging is recyclable plastic!

Image courtesy Portia/Adobe Stock.

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