When the world could no longer eat together in restaurants at the beginning of 2020, many of us turned to take-out, delivery and fast food.
Online meal delivery revenues in the United States are projected to reach $26.5 billion this year, a 20 percent increase over 2019. San Francisco-based delivery service DoorDash, which operates in the United States, Canada, and Australia, has seen business skyrocket during the pandemic. The company was valued at more than $39 billion upon going public on December 9.
In the United Kingdom, which has a population of 66 million, nearly 19 million people are estimated to have ordered food delivery directly from a restaurant this year, a 19 percent increase over 2019. And more than 10 million used a third-party delivery service, a 25 percent jump. The CEO of London-based delivery app Deliveroo estimated earlier this month that COVID-19 has accelerated the already-trending adoption of online prepared food delivery by two to three years.
With these trends has come an increasing use of disposable food service ware and all attendant threats to both human health and the environment.
Can we still get takeout from our favorite eatery, support them during this tough economic time, and minimize both our chemical exposure and the broader environmental impacts associated with disposable containers, tableware and cutlery? Ideally, takeout and delivery would be served in glass, stainless steel or ceramic — materials that are safe and reusable — as opposed to the single-use plastic that is far more common today.
But disposable packaging is sometimes unavoidable. All disposable food service products, whether made of plastic, paper, or plants, involve compromises and trade-offs between environmental impacts, chemical safety, performance, cost and even appearance. No material or product is perfect — but some are far better than others.
Orb Media developed a new, reliable methodology to evaluate the merits, hidden risks and impacts of the disposable foodware that is increasingly seen on our tables — and in our waste bins. The methodology comprises information from interviews of 16 food packaging safety and sustainability experts, many of them recognized as leading experts in the field. We also reviewed dozens of reports, studies and articles.
Disposable food products can help us and others stay safe, as well as keep our favorite local restaurants open. But the surge in use of disposable food products has come at significant, albeit hidden, costs to both the environment and, paradoxically, our own health. As the pandemic drags on, these costs continue to pile up for communities around the world. Wherever there is disposable food packaging, there are bound to be impacts.
Yet there are ways to reduce environmental harms and health threats associated with producing, using and disposing of foodware.
Disposable food packaging use is up
Even as we anticipate the arrival of vaccines for COVID-19, and gain ever more knowledge about its spread and treatment, the virus and its impact on our world won’t disappear overnight. In fact, the pandemic could affect our lives and ways of eating for years to come.
But the increased use of disposables during the pandemic need not become another reason for despair. To the contrary, COVID-19 can be a catalyst for safer and more sustainable choices around disposable foodware. This includes avoiding disposables when possible, says Sue Chiang, Pollution Prevention Director for the US-based nonprofit Center for Environmental Health, which studies and advocates for chemical safety in a variety of areas, including food packaging.
Among other solutions, stricter regulation of food-contact chemicals is needed, says Jane Muncke, Managing Director of the Food Packaging Forum. “The manufacturers of these materials usually will tell you, ‘Our product complies with regulations.’ That’s a very reasonable statement and absolutely understandable as a manufacturer. For me, the definition of safety should be that it doesn’t contain hazardous chemicals, and it doesn’t contain untested chemicals. But with the current definition by regulations, it’s absolutely fine to have both hazardous and untested chemicals in the products.”
Even during the pandemic, experts like Chiang and Muncke have called for the development of new models and systems of managing reusable foodware.
When going ‘reusable’ is impossible, recognize the risks
Where reusables are unfeasible, Chiang and Muncke encourage choosing the safest and most sustainable disposable food service ware available.
The pandemic can be a driver of innovation and investment in better systems, technologies and materials worldwide, Chiang says. “Now during COVID, there’s this opportunity. Everything has been disrupted, so there’s an opportunity to think about how we do the whole thing.”
Identifying potential chemical risks associated with different disposable food service articles is not a straightforward task. Many factors and variables are involved, with plenty of unknowns — including precisely which chemicals are present in the product, how harmful they may be, and the extent to which they will migrate or transfer, into food items or drinks.
Still, it is possible to make educated and informed assumptions based on what the product is made of, how it will be used, and additional information that can be found on manufacturer or product websites. Orb Media’s methodology is designed to facilitate this process by assessing the safety and sustainability of available materials and products, and ultimately encouraging the use of less-toxic, lower-impact options.
When we’re not careful, chemicals slip in
The worrisome link between molded fiber food packaging and highly perfluorinated chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- or PFAS (PEE-fas) for short -- offers a cautionary tale.
In recent years, molded fiber bowls, plates and clamshells have become increasingly popular for delivery, takeout and use in markets and many “fast-casual” restaurant chains. Given growing concerns about the environmental impacts of single-use plastics, biodegradable and plant-based molded fiber looks like an ideal alternative.
However, to make them hold up to hot, oily and greasy foods, fiber-based products have traditionally been infused with highly perfluorinated chemicals, says Martin Mulvihill of the US venture capital firm Safer Made, which invests in companies and technologies that avoid the use of hazardous chemicals in consumer products.
Similar compounds are used on water-repellent fabrics, stain-resistant carpets and non-stick pans. These chemicals are suspected to harm human health and to persist in the environment.
Awareness of the presence of PFAS in molded fiber foodware first surfaced on a large scale in late 2017, when the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), a US-based nonprofit certifier of compostability, announced it would enforce a limit of 100 parts per million total fluorine in certified products.
This new standard, which went into effect on January 1, 2020, incentivized manufacturers of molded fiber foodware around the world to begin developing safer chemistries so that their products could still be certified compostable. While the transition remains underway a year after that deadline, new PFAS-free molded fiber products are now available in restaurants and grocery stores around the world.
“It’s actually a fairly good story, and I give BPI a lot of the credit here,” says Mulvihill. “If it’s BPI-certified, you can have a high degree of confidence that whatever the additives are, they don’t contain PFAS. Which is great. That was not the case until this year.”
Of the 12,285 chemicals identified in the Food Packaging Forum’s new database, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are among those that we know most about. Thousands of others have not been studied at all for potential toxicity.
Awareness can make all the difference
The evolution of molded fiber illustrates that to make real progress in disposable food service ware, materials must be assessed holistically, with both safety and sustainability in mind.
Today this is more true than ever. While demand for disposable food service products has grown significantly, consumers are also increasingly aware of some of the downsides of this trend.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurial start-ups and large corporations alike are actively developing and marketing new plant-based, environmentally appealing food packaging products. These are made or derived from a dizzying array of materials: seaweed, algae, cheese whey, almond shells, olive seeds, avocado pits, eggshells, shellfish shells, milk protein, papaya, coconut coir, cassava, sunflower seed hulls, fish waste, dried hay, canola seeds, potato starch and beets, to name a few.
Whether or not the products of tomorrow are truly safer and more sustainable remains an open question. Regulators, manufacturers, food service providers, and diners all have a responsibility and an active role to play in reducing the impacts of disposable food service ware, both now and in the future.
Orb Media unearths global insights on how our world can forge a more sustainable future. We use journalistic craft, data analysis and networks to transform global, long-term issues of social and environmental sustainability into locally actionable information.