Ditching Disposables: A Toolkit for Healthier Foodware in K-12 Schools
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Health & Waste Impacts of Food Service Ware (FSW) Materials
Common Single-Use FSW Materials
The most common type of single-use FSW used in schools are products that are made from plastics, especially expanded polystyrene foam (EPS, or more commonly known as “Styrofoam” ™). While these products tend to be cheap and may seem convenient in the short term, their effects on our health and environment can be long lasting. As previously mentioned, the vast majority of plastics used in both reusable and single-use foodware are sourced from petrochemicals. Lifecycle concerns for plastics include exposure to toxic chemicals during manufacture, use and disposal; increased risk for chronic diseases, climate change from increased fossil fuel consumption, microplastic contamination of marine life, air pollution from incinerating waste, and much more. Plastic products may contain constituents that are hazardous.1 The Plastics Scorecard, developed by Clean Production Action, ranks many commonly used plastics (but not including, for example, melamine and acrylic), on the toxicity of hazardous chemicals that are used in the production of the plastic polymers and are present in the base polymer material. However, as this a ssessment only covers the base polymeric material, other chemical additives, such as plasticizers and dyes, that are used to manufacture the final plastic products (e.g. plates, bowls, take-out containers) are not evaluated by the Plastics Scorecard. The Plastics Scorecard rankings are as follows: the more preferable plastics are in green; the least preferable in red (the numbers refer to common recycling classifications): BEST [PLA > PP(#5),PE (#2,4)] > FAIR [PET (#1)] > WORST [PS (#6),PC (#7),PVC (#3), ABS (#7)].
Polystyrene (PS, #6) / Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPS) Health and Waste Concerns
Expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) products cause many of the same downstream waste problems as other petroleum-based plastics; however, they exhibit some unique properties which are cause for particular concern. Some unbound styrene remains in polystyrene foam and can migrate into food.2,3 The World Health Organization, National Institutes of Health, and the State of California all identify styrene as a carcinogenic (cancer causing) chemical.4,5 Expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) is rarely recycled, mainly because the process is usually not profitable. In California, approximately 1% of all expanded polystyrene foam is recycled.6 Nationwide, the recycling rate is even lower.7 In 2017, NYC’s Department of Sanitation determined that “FoodService Foam or post-consumer Food-Service Foam cannot be recycled in a manner that is economically feasible or environmentally effective for New York City”;8 they subsequently enacted a ban on these products that went into effect in early 2019.9
Polypropylene (PP, #5) Health Concerns
Polypropylene is an impact resistant plastic that is commonly used to make food containers, ranging from yogurt cups to commercial food storage bins. Due to its high heat tolerance, it is also often used in microwavable food packaging,10 although we don’t recommend heating food in plastic. While polypropylene is FDA-approved for food contact, emerging science is finding that this material may not be as safe as originally thought. A 2019 study found that some polypropylene food containers contain significant levels of hormone disrupting chemicals.11 Just 3% of polypropylene is currently recycled; a new group, the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, is focused on bringing all the relevant players together to capture more than 1.6 billion pounds of this plastic that is not currently recycled.
The term “bioplastics” can refer to bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics, which are not the same thing. “Bio-based” plastics are made in whole or in part from renewable plant-based materials such as corn, potatoes, sugarcane, or wheat; while “biodegradable” plastics are able to be completely broken down by microbes in a reasonable timeframe, given specific conditions. Just because a plastic is “bio-based” does not guarantee that it is biodegradable or compostable. It may either be compostable, recyclable or neither, depending on the plastic manufactured from the plant based materials. You can find more information about the difference between biodegradable vs compostable plastic and common misconceptions about bioplastics here.
Paper, Paperboard, & Molded Fiber
Another common type of single-use FSW used in schools are paper, paperboard or molded fiber products. It is widely believed that molded fiber FSW is more sustainable than plastic because it is made out of natural materials that can be renewably sourced or from byproducts of other manufacturing. However, lifecycle impacts of the source materials and the viability of composting of these products can be extremely detrimental to health and the environment.
Fiber Health Concerns
As with plastic FSW, many molded fiber, paper, and paperboard FSW may contain toxic chemicals, both known and unknown. Known chemicals of concern include the class of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, used to provide a grease and liquid resistant barrier for molded fiber and paper-based foodware products. Paper-based products are often coated with plastic film for grease and liquid resistance; these coatings can also contain potentially harmful substances. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a variety of serious health issues, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), delayed puberty, obesity, a variety of cancers, among others.12,13 PFAS are a class of man-made substances that have earned the nickname “forever chemicals” because they are extraordinarily persistent in the environment and in our bodies. In the US, 98% of people have elevated levels of these fluorinated chemicals in their blood.14 Between chemical releases from factories and consumer products that contain PFAS, food, water, and air all around the world have become contaminated.15 In schools, children can be directly exposed to these chemicals by handling and eating food that has come into contact with foodware that contains PFAS.16 Non-fluorinated paper-based products are widely available; molded fiber alternatives have only recently been entering the market and we expect this category of products to grow significantly as a result of purchaser demand. Fiber Waste Concerns Paper you write on has a fairly high recycling rate of 68%. This rate goes down for non-durable paper goods, such as paper FSW, which are recycled at a rate of 47.4%.17 Mixed materials such as paper coffee cups lined with plastic are difficult to recycle because the layers are cost-prohibitive to separate. Therefore, even when put into the recycling bin, paper and fiber-based FSW may end up in a landfill. When molded fiber or paper-based FSW is sent to a landfill, it breaks down through anaerobic decomposition due to the lack of oxygen present in waste piles. This process decomposes the foodware very slowly and produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.18
Common Reusable FSW Materials
Stainless steel is a non-reactive material that is widely used in food processing and serving capacities because it is durable, and easy to clean. The most common variety of food-grade stainless steel is called 304, also known as ‘18-8’ because it contains 18% chromium and 8% nickel.19
Stainless Steel Health Concerns
While chromium and nickel could be harmful if you were directly exposed at high concentrations, studies on food service ware have shown that the chemical stability of stainless steel prevents these compounds from migrating out of at meaningful levels.20
Melamine Steel Health Concerns
While physically durable, melamine products are not chemically stable when exposed to heat and are widely considered to be unsafe for use in ovens or microwaves.23,24 Studies have also shown that melamine can migrate out of FSW products in small amounts when exposed to hot or acidic food and beverages.25
Polycarbonate is a durable, heat resistant plastic that is often used to produce hospital trays, commercial serving bowls, wearable sneeze shields, and much more. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a fundamental component used to make polycarbonate. While companies are researching approaches to making polycarbonate without BPA or other bisphenols, these have not yet made it to the market.
Polycarbonate Health Concerns
BPA, an endocrine disrupting chemical, has been shown to interfere with reproductive development in animals and has been linked with cardiovascular disease and diabetes in humans.A study at Harvard found that participants who drank from polycarbonate drinking bottles for one week showed a two-thirds increase of BPA in their urine.26 Further studies have shown that plastic bottles leach BPA into water at room temperature, and when exposed to boiling water, leach BPA 55 times more rapidly than prior to heat exposure.27
Additives of Concern in Food Contact Materials
PFAS are a class of man-made substances that have earned the nickname “forever chemicals” because they are extraordinarily persistent in the environment and in our bodies. They are primarily used to provide a grease and liquid resistant barrier for paper and fiber food ware products -- especially molded fiber (products that are made from sugarcane, bagasse, wheat straw, and other plant-based fibers). Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a variety of serious health issues, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), delayed puberty, obesity, a variety of cancers, among others.28,29 In the US, 98% of people have elevated levels of these fluorinated chemicals in their blood.30
Between chemical releases from factories and consumer products that contain PFAS, food, water, and air all around the world have become contaminated.31 In schools, children can be directly exposed to these chemicals by handling and eating food that has come into contact with foodware that contains PFAS.32 Paper and other fiber-based products are available and PFAS should not be used in these products in the first place. Non-fluorinated paper and paperboard products are available. Availability of PFAS-free molded fiber options have been coming out recently and are expected to increase as purchasers demand safer options.
Bisphenol A (BPA)is the main building block for polycarbonate plastic which is commonly used to make food and beverage containers. Perhaps the most well known toxic chemical additive found in plastics, BPA is an endocrine disrupting chemical that is linked to behavioral and learning disorders in children, premature puberty, childhood asthma, a variety of cancers, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other serious health issues.33 While the FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and children’s sippy cups in 2012, it is likely still found in many other food contact products.34 Since then, many manufacturers have replaced BPA with one of many of its chemical-cousins, including Bisphenol-S (BPS) and Bisphenol-F (BPF). While these products are technically “BPA-free”, recent studies have linked many of the same hormone-disrupting effects that BPA can cause to these replacement chemicals as well.35
Phthalates are a type of man-made chemical that are added to plastics to make them more flexible and difficult to break.36 They have loose molecular bonds by design, which inadvertently allows them to easily migrate out of plastics and into our bodies.37 Exposure to these chemicals is widespread. They have been detected in the urine of 97-99% of the US population.38 Like BPA, phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals and are linked to a wide variety of health issues. Exposure has been associated with learning disorders, childhood obesity, reproductive malformations in babies, asthma, increased allergic reactions, cancers, and more.39,40,41,42,43 In September 2020, a coalition of scientists, health professionals and child advocates who comprise Project TENDR, called for the ban of phthalates in consumer products in the United States.44 This initiative is further supported by further health experts and researchers across the United States and around the globe.
Appendices and Citations
Continue learning by following the links within this toolkit, which lead to a variety of resources including those of external affiliates. For more information or to contribute to the toolkit, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit CEH.org/foodware.