Health Concerns for Food Service Ware Materials

Single-Use FSW

There is no “perfect” single-use food service ware (FSW) option with regard to health. Many manufacturers add chemicals, such as biocides, UV stabilizers, and plasticizers to help them hold hot and greasy food, function in a microwave, and store leftovers for several days.

Many of these chemicals have not been tested for toxicity and have been shown to leach out of FSW and into our food.1 Moreover, these toxic chemicals can get into the environment when foodware is disposed of. For example, PFAS, nicknamed the ‘forever chemicals’, are commonly used in some fiber-based foodware to provide grease- and water-resistance. PFAS are associated with a wide range of negative health outcomes including hormone disruption2 and interfering with the body’s response to vaccines3. PFAS can take thousands of years to break down and are nearly impossible to clean up once they are in the environment. Investigation, monitoring, remediation, and treatment of PFAS-contaminated areas is costing communities millions of dollars across the country.4 PFAS-free single use FSW can be found here and in the appendices and citations below.5

GreenScreen Certified

A new tool, GreenScreen Certified, has been developed by CEH and another national non-profit organization, Clean Production Action (CPA), to make it easier for purchasers to identify single-use FSW products with safer chemistry. The certification will be launched before the end of 2021 and will help purchasers select single-use FSW products with preferred chemistry for people and the planet and avoid regrettable substitutions. For example, new products are coming out in response to purchasers demanding PFAS-free fiber-based FSW. However, manufacturers will not disclose what they are using instead of PFAS to provide water- and grease-resistance. GreenScreen Certified provides a framework for purchasers to demand that all chemical ingredients in the product be assessed for chemical hazard through a trusted third-party. As purchasers, an important step to getting safer FSW products on the market is to ask your suppliers or manufacturers to offer GreenScreen Certified FSW.

Reusable FSW

The two most common materials used in reusable multi-compartment school food trays are stainless steel and plastics. Plastic products frequently include chemical additives for color, hardness, or flexibility, and many of these additives are linked to health and environmental impacts. While most food ware is made from non-reactive plastic, emerging research shows that these plastics can leach potentially harmful chemicals.6

The vast majority of plastics used in both reusable and single-use foodware are sourced from petrochemicals. As many countries shift to renewable energy sources, the fossil fuel industry is seeking new markets and increasing plastics production. This increases both climate and toxic chemical impacts on vulnerable communities.

Take Action

Foodware manufacturers are not required to share all the ingredients in their products, but as a purchaser, you have the power to pressure them to be more transparent and to provide safety assurances. Ask your supplier about what ingredients are in their products and whether they all have been assessed for toxicity and chemical hazards. FDA approval is not an adequate measure of safety, as there are loopholes in FDA’s oversight;7 for example, they have allowed a number of PFAS chemicals to be used in FSW. There is also a need for a GreenScreen Certification for reusable FSW, which CEH and CPA plan to develop after the launch of the single-use certification. You can find more detailed descriptions of health and lifecycle concerns for each of these common reusable foodware materials in Appendix A. For more high-level guidance on purchasing single-use FSW, including a decision-tree for product selection, see CEH’s purchaser guide below.

Example Material Comparisons

Guidance on Some Single-Use Materials

From a toxics perspective and based on what is generally known about the following material types, this chart provides some high level guidance on common materials used in single-use FSW. There is currently a focus on shifting the market away from fossil-fuel based and plant-based compostable single-use plastics, but not much attention has been directed at fiber-based FSW. You can find more detailed information about the materials in Appendix A.

Guidance on Common Reusable Materials

From a toxics perspective and based on what is generally known about the following material types, this chart provides guidance on common materials used for reusable multi-compartment food trays found in schools. You can find more detailed information in Appendix A.

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 or visit

Ditching Disposables A Toolkit for Healthier Foodware in K-12 Schools