Who are the most polluters on the planet? As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) inspected the packaging practices of forty-seven fast food/quick-service restaurant chains, beverage companies, and consumer goods/grocery companies in the United States and identified the worst as well as the best.
When you bite into a savory hamburger or nibble on crispy french fries from your favorite fast-food joint, the last thing on your mind is whether or not you’re consuming toxic chemicals with each yummy bite. However, you should consider it, especially in the light of a recent Consumer Reports (CR) investigation.
Even though plastic packaging is the most rapidly growing type of packaging, owing primarily to growth in fast food and consumer beverages. It accounts for 80% of the pollution in the ocean. Furthermore, the value of plastic waste generated globally each year is estimated to be $14.8 billion.
CR revealed in a detailed report that between August and November 2021, their experts tested multiple food packaging samples of 118 products sold by 24 different restaurants and grocery chains. Why? They were looking for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, abbreviated PFAS.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in our soil, water, and even the air long after they are created. The problem is that studies have shown that some PFAS, which can accumulate in our bodies over time, can be harmful to human and animal health.
“Studies have shown that PFAS exposure in mothers is associated with lower birth weight in their babies and a shorter period of breastfeeding. PFAS are also associated with decreased thyroid and kidney function,” says Susan Pinney, Ph.D. of the Department of Environmental and Public Health Sciences at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
“Some scientific evidence suggests that PFAS are linked to certain cancers, including kidney, testicular, breast, and prostate cancer.”
According to CR’s investigation, eight national fast-food and fast-casual restaurants were named on the “naughty list” for having at least one food packaging item (such as a sandwich wrapper, a paper bag for side dishes, or a kids’ meal fiber tray) that tested positive for high levels of PFAS (anything over 100 parts per million). Arby’s and Burger King are among the eight “Bad-Wrap” list-makers, and specific packaging items were discovered to be the most toxic at each restaurant.
The Most Toxic Eight
According to the report, Consumer Reports tested a collection of food packaging samples for “total organic fluorine content” because “all PFAS contain organic fluorine.” The eight restaurants on this list had at least one food packaging item with more than 100 parts per million (ppm) total organic fluorine, effectively a measure of PFAS levels. Beginning in January 2023, anything containing more than 100 ppm organic fluorine will be prohibited in California.
Washington was the first state to pass a state measure in 2018 to limit the use of PFAS in paper food packaging; Maine followed suit in 2019, and bans in San Francisco and Berkeley get affected in 2020.
As per the report, exposure to certain PFAS has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, hormone disruption, decreased fertility, lower birth weights, increased cholesterol, and changes in nervous system development.
Apart from food packaging, these chemicals came in contact with humans when they leak into soils and drinking water from industrial sources. They can also infiltrate household dust and air when these chemicals are used in consumer products.
And to the researchers, millions of Americans are “drinking PFAS-contaminated water, and nearly 100 percent have a PFAS body burden.” According to one study, eating microwave popcorn was linked to higher levels of the chemicals in people’s blood.
Furthermore, PFAS exposure has been linked to a decreased antibody response to vaccines, as well as other chronic immune-related conditions. According to the researchers, this raises concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Whether the chains are serving burgers, fries, or salad, they owe it to their customers to serve it up in safe packaging,” study co-author Erika Schreder, science director at Toxic-Free Future, said in the release. “We found many instances of packaging that’s PFAS-free—there’s no reason for these chains to choose any food packaging that contains (them).”
Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist and packaging report project editor, Natural Resources Defense Council, added, “Single-use food and beverage packaging is a prime component of the plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways, which kills and injures marine life and poses a potential threat to human health. Companies have an opportunity and an obligation to curb this pollution. Better packaging design and improved support and adoption of recycling are key to turning the tide on this unnecessary waste.”
Photo by Kristina Paukshtite