Imagine that you’re sitting in a Chipotle, Tuesday afternoon, 2:27 p.m. The smell of the just cleaned table wafts through the air as a weird wordless remix of Cher’s Believe plays from just loud enough to be distracting speakers overhead. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself, Chipotle, after all, uses fresh and real ingredients, locally sourced and ethically farmed. Why they even serve their popular Burrito Bowls in a molded fiber compostable container. You know this because when you separate your trash there’s a specific bin for compostable and recyclable materials. It feels good to know you’re helping the planet one Burrito Bowl at a time, just like the Chipotle cup says.
Not so fast. According to research conducted by non-profit newsroom, The New Food Economy, those compostable bowls show evidence of being treated with PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — which help the paper bowls keep their structural integrity while holding hot, wet, or greasy food but don’t breakdown naturally in the environment and contain chemicals that are linked to certain forms of cancer and other adverse health effects.
The New Food Economy carefully collected and sent samples of molded fiber bowls from 14 locations of eight different New York City fast-casual restaurants (and one piece of printer paper), including bowls from Chipotle and Sweetgreen to Graham Peaslee, a Notre Dame chemist, who found that all of the bowls tested positive for high levels of fluorine, which indicates the use of PFAS. Meaning it’s healthier (for you and the planet) to eat your food off of printer paper than a molded fiber bowl.
The EPA describes PFAS as chemicals that don’t breakdown in the environment and have been linked to adverse human health effects like low infant birth rate, changes to the immune system, cancer, or thyroid disruption and are colloquially referred to as “forever chemicals” — which decisively doesn’t sound like anything that belongs in a compost pile (or… y’know, a body).