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|Compostable Packaging – An Exploratory Dialogue on Fluoro-Chemical Risks|
Gary Robinson, Synaptic Packaging
In this post we are exploring packaging components in compost and seeking to expand our understanding of the specific concerns relating to fluro-chemicals and toxicity.
Packaging in compost is a very active and exciting topic. Depending on your perspective, you might see this as an innovation opportunity, or as a difficult challenge contributing to contaminants in the compost. Synaptic Packaging has written in the past about the benefits and value of composting, and further expanded on how packaging can play an important role in capturing food organics.
We are finding two underlying strategies behind the exploration of compostable packaging solutions. One strategy is tied to a very focused objective: recycling organics in the food service sector. The other strategy is to advance a more holistic vision where packaging has a known, limited, life-cycle and can be safely returned to the earth after consumption (the banana peel vision of packaging if you will). Both of these strategies are being actively pursued through advanced R&D. Today, we are going to focus on packaging’s role to recycle organics in food service.
Let’s start by revisiting the basics. The four primary functions of a package are to
Each of these attributes can be individually analyzed for a packaging system to enhance performance and increase value to the consumer. For this post, we focus our attention on ‘Protection’ and ‘Disposal’.
In food service, the packaging provides functional protection to both the consumer and the quality of the food. The food we consume has many different characteristics from temperature, moisture, viscosities, oil content, and steam to name a few. Moisture and oils are a common component in nearly all of the food we eat, and so grease and moisture barrier is a high valued attribute of a packaging system.
Plastics, and oil-based polymers tend to perform well in providing moisture and grease barrier. Unfortunately, these oil-based plastics are not natural, renewable, and generally not compostable though some exceptions apply. Bio-polymers, which typically are industriallycompostable, can provide effective moisture and grease barriers. These bio-polymers however generally perform better at lower temperatures and some food service applications require high temperature performance. Bio-polymer technology is advancing rapidly, so it is best to investigate application specific details before putting too much weight in that generalization.
Paper, and fiber-based packages are very functional, economic, are often preferred by consumers, and tend to perform well in composting. To provide the necessary oil and grease barrier however, these paper fibers need to be treated. Without treatment, the fibers tend to wick the moisture and grease soaks through the package rather quickly. Fluoro-chemicals are a very common treatment utilized today to provide this barrier.
So, what are fluoro-chemicals? The US Environmental Protection Agency defines these products as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS for short). This group of man-made chemicals historically contain chains of eight carbon atoms attached to fluorine and other atoms. These fluoro-chemicals were initially used world-wide back in the 1940’s. In more recent years, the use of fluoro-chemicals has undergone extensive research and the supporting science has shown these chemicals to be very persistent and accumulating over time both in the human body and in the environment. (1)
In most industrial commercial applications, these fluoro-chemicals are utilized in high-value, long life products. For example, they are commonly used in consumer hard goods and textiles for non-stick surfaces and water repellence. Some common products would include non-stick cookware, water repellent clothing, sports gear, and industrial machine surfaces. Part of their intrinsic value is that they are very robust, effective, and reliable.
In consumer packaging, the use of fluoro-chemicals presents a slightly different dynamic given the short consumer use of the materials, the direct contact with food, and the accumulating volume of waste associated with disposable consumption. About ten years ago the chemical industry sought to self-regulate to address the emerging concerns of toxicity of fluoro-chemicals. In doing so, they voluntarily enacted measures to phase out older long-chain formulas with 8 carbons or more, and replace them with less pervasive, shorter-chain chemistry. In January 2016 the FDA formally revoked the use of the older long-chain PFAS chemistry. (2)
In January 2018 the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) conducted an independent audit on food service packaging and found that 58% of the samples analyzed contained fluorinated chemicals(3). The CEH analysis clearly identified the broad presence of fluoro-chemicals in food service packaging, however did not expand on the details of long vs. short chain chemistry.
During the writing of this blog post the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released the findings of extended research in an 852-page analysis on the risk of fluorinated chemicals. The CDC is now recommending that consumer exposure levels to fluorinated chemicals be reduced 10 times below the current recommendations previously issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. (4)
Circling back to composting; the issue of fluoro-chemistry in food service packaging is back on the table as it relates to compost. Since these materials are commonly used as an oil and grease barrier in packaging, and the chemistry is very persistent and accumulating in the environment, many feel strongly that this chemistry should not be permitted in compost soils. At COMPOST2018this was discussed and leadership at the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) indicated intent to ban the use of fluoro-chemicals in compostable packaging. In the discussion BPI further indicated an intent to require validation testing that the package component be free from fluoro-chemicals before issuing approval for a BPI compostable certification mark.
The challenges discussed above present a very classic risk profile. There is a growing body of knowledge, an element of uncertainty, and an element of perception. Some general guidance:
SYNAPTIC Packaging is a consulting firm specializing in the needs of consumer brands, quick service restaurants, and the extended supply chain supporting these markets. Reach Gary at
References and Additional Readings: