The new compostable to-go bowls at Sweetgreen’s San Francisco restaurant are missing something: They don’t contain PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the so-called “forever chemicals” that are used in nonstick pans, flame retardants, and also in most of the molded fiber food packages that have become ubiquitous in healthy fast-casual chains, despite the sustainable appearance of those containers.
To fix the problem, Sweetgreen partnered with Footprint—a company that aims to eliminate single-use plastic packaging—to launch the new bowls, which it plans to roll out at its stores across the country this year.
“Obviously, a big part of our impact is our packaging, and it’s something we’re constantly looking at and iterating and understanding how we can evolve it,” says Sweetgreen cofounder Nic Jammet. The company is the first restaurant chain to use Footprint’s packaging.
For restaurants that want to avoid sending piles of packaging waste to landfills, compostable fiber packaging seemed like an obvious answer, at least in cities where curbside compost pickup exists. But an investigation last year in The Counter (formerly New Food Economy), which sent samples of compostable packages to a lab for testing, highlighted that PFAS were commonly used in the containers.
If the chemicals end up in compost, they persist, potentially ending up in soil, water, or in other food grown with the compost. And PFAS compounds—which have been linked to health problems including cancer, thyroid disease, and low birth weight—also likely leach into food.
While the worst types of PFAS began to be phased out of production by the FDA in 2011, it isn’t clear what the impact is of the other types of PFAS that still exist in food packaging. For companies making containers out of compostable fiber, the chemicals are a simple way to coat the paper-like surface so it doesn’t get soggy. “It’s relatively inexpensive and it doesn’t take a lot of engineering work to create an oil barrier . . . chlorinated chemistries work, and they’re cheap,” says Troy Swope, CEO of Footprint. “To eliminate [PFAS], to create an oil barrier that doesn’t need it, takes a lot of engineering.”