PFAS in compostable food packaging? US and EU Laws Regarding Packaging

PFAS in compostable food packaging? US and EU Laws Regarding Packaging.

The international community is encouraging manufacturers to replace plastics with compostable food packaging and straws. However, tests and investigations reveal that these seemingly safe materials contain PFAS that can be transferred to food during use and consumed by us. Due to safety considerations, countries worldwide, including several states in the US and the EU, have begun formulating and implementing laws to prohibit the use of PFAS in food packaging. The article will introduce legislative progress concerning PFAS in food packaging in the US and the EU, as well as describing how PFAS are transferred to food from packaging, endangering our safety. It will also explain how to avoid exposure to PFAS on food packaging.

What are PFAS?

Besides microplastics, are you aware of another type of chemical substance that remains in the environment and finds its way into the human body called PFAS? The full name of PFAS is per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, which endow products with water- and oil-resistant properties. They are also used as a catalyst for manufacturing chemical products. Products we use in everyday life that contain PFAS include raincoats, non-stick baking pans, paper bags used for food packaging, functional water-resistant clothing, cosmetics, contact lenses, and fire extinguishers. Although PFAS have wide ranging applications and excellent performance, they do not break down easily and may harm people’s health. Thus, they should be avoided as much as possible, to ensure safety.

Of all the uses, kitchenware, food packaging, and tableware should be our top concern, because they come in direct contact with food. After all, no one wants to ingest PFAS while enjoying delicious food. Countries around the world are formulating relevant laws to regulate the presence of PFAS in food packaging in order to lower the likelihood of ingesting PFAS and thereby help prevent PFAS-induced conditions including neonatal and maternal diseases, reduced fertility, metabolic problems caused by thyroid conditions, neurodegeneration, cancer risk, and cardiovascular disease, and others.

PFAS are compounds consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and fluorine. Scientists believe that the more carbon atoms and longer the carbon chain of PFAS, the longer they take to decompose, and therefore the higher the toxicity to the human body. Both perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contain eight carbon atoms. Current PFAS management remains focused on long-chain PFAS with at least carbons.

PFAS in US food packaging law

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added Significant New Uses Rule (SNUR) regarding long-chain PFAS in September 2020. According to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), to manufacture, import, process, or distribute long-chain PFAS, one must notify the EPA 90 days in advance to conduct a review. Furthermore, two types of PFAS – PFOA and POFS – are designated as harmful substances under CERCLA.

Since PFAS are often used in food packaging and may transfer to food, the FDA has listed it as a controlled food additive. In 2016, the FDA revoked its permission to use long-chain PFAS in food packaging in Federal Register 81 FR 5 and 81 FR 83672, and it is actively investigating whether other short-chain PFAS are harmful to people. At present, short-chain PFAS are still authorized at the federal level in the US for applications such as non-stick cookware, gaskets used in food processing equipment, auxiliary chemicals, and paper/cardboard food packaging.

Some state governments in the US are also promulgating laws to restrict the use of PFAS:

  • The Government of the State of New York: Starting from December 31, 2022, food packaging with intentionally added PFAS will be prohibited in the state.
  • The Government of California: Starting from January 1, 2023, food packaging with intentionally added PFAS plant fiber will be banned. The content of unintentionally added organic fluorine must not exceed 100 ppm.
  • The Government of Washington State: Starting from February 1, 2023, the production and sale of wrapping paper, pans, food boats, and pizza boxes with intentionally added PFAS are prohibited.
  • The Government of Vermont: Starting from July 1, 2023, packaging with intentionally added PFAS may not be manufactured or sold in the state.
  • The Government of Connecticut: Food packaging containing any amount of PFAS intentionally added during the manufacturing process will be banned in the state no later than December 31, 2023.
  • The Government of Colorado: Starting from January 1, 2024, carpets, rugs, fabrics, food packaging, children’s products, as well as oil and gas products with intentionally added PFAS will banned.
  • The Government of Maryland: Starting from January 1, 2024, the use, manufacture, and sale of fire-fighting foams with intentionally added PFAS will be banned in the state, and the manufacture and sale of carpets, while direct contact food containers with intentionally added PFAS will also be prohibited.
  • Minnesota Government: Starting from January 1, 2024, the manufacture, sale, and distribution of food packaging with intentionally added PFAS will be banned in the state.
  • Government of Hawaii: Starting from December 31, 2024, the manufacture and sale of food packaging including wrapping paper, liners, pans, food boats, and pizza boxes will be banned in the state.

PFAS in EU food packaging law

Since 2009, when it was included in the Stockholm Convention and the EU POPs Regulation, PFOS has been restricted in the EU for over a decade. In addition, PFOA and PFHxS were banned in 2020 and August 2023, respectively. In January 2023, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) received a new joint proposal from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden to restrict PFAS. The proposal states that all PFAS are highly persistent in the environment and will have a negative impact on people’s health and the wider environment if not managed properly. Consequently, the production, marketing, and use of PFAS should be restricted. In particular, it suggests that the food contact applications of PFAS can easily be substituted by other alternatives. If the proposal is approved, PFAS are likely to be completely banned within 18 months. The ECHA launched a public consultation in March and received more than 5,600 comments by late September. The proposal will be reviewed by a professional committee in greater detail, and the final proposal may be approved and then implemented in 2025 and 2027, respectively.

One country in the EU has already imposed restrictions on PFAS. Denmark banned the use of PFAS in food contact paper and cardboard in 2020. Currently, it is the only country in the EU that enforces controls on all PFAS.

Why do we care so strongly about PFAS in food packaging?

In recent years, using less plastic has become a global consensus, and there are alternative solutions such as paper and plant fiber available. Most single-use food packaging has become part of the first wave of products to come under regulation. However, these substitute materials for plastic do not possess water- and oil-resistant properties, hence water-resistant coatings are needed to improve their functionality. PFAS are widely used in coatings because they are economical and versatile, but they may be transferred to food when the container comes in direct contact with food and then consumed by us, gradually accumulating inside our bodies over time. Although current studies have yet to prove the damage caused by PFAS to the human body, according to statistics and animal experiments, PFAS have numerous health concerns including interfering with the placentas of pregnant women, reducing female fertility, increasing the chance of cancer, and causing thyroid problems that in turn affect metabolism.

How do PFAS get from food packaging into food?

Chemical substances diffuse from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration following Brownian motion and Fick’s law. The same applies to PFAS. Although we cannot confirm the actual transfer mechanism of PFAS, Arabela Ramírez Carnero, Antía Lestido-Cardama, Patricia Vazquez Loureiro, Letricia Barbosa-Pereira, Ana Rodríguez Bernaldo de Quirós, and Raquel Sendón. (2021) Presence of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Food Contact Materials (FCM) and Its Migration to Food’s literature review concluded that food with higher fat content or temperatures will facilitate the absorption of long-chain PFAS. Moreover, short-chain PFAS also transfer to food more easily through volatilization under high temperatures. Animal-based foods generally have a higher fat content. If they are fried or boiled, large amounts of PFAS may be transferred to the food when food packaging containing PFAS is used.

Do PFAS move from straws into your drink?

We know very little about the transfer of PFAS in liquids. However, recent research on whether straws contain PFAS have proven that PFAS are released in water, and the longer PFAS come in contact with liquids, the more PFAS will be released through deposition. According to the 2023 European research “Assessment of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in commercially available drinking straws using targeted and suspect screening approaches”, PFAS are detected in many straw materials including paper, glass, bamboo, and plastic. These PFAS may have been unintentionally added by the manufacturers; for example by the equipment used in the production process or from contaminated materials such as recycled paper pulp. If we are not sure whether a straw contains PFAS, avoid using the same straw for a long time or placing it in a beverage for several hours before drinking it. Also, avoid the habit of biting the straw. The safest method is to use stainless steel straws, to which PFAS do not attach easily, or use PFAS-free renouvo sugarcane straws that have passed several dozen PFAS tests.

Are there PFAS in compostable plant fiber food packaging or tableware?

According to Throwaway Packaging, Forever Chemicals: Europe-wide survey of PFAS in disposable food packaging and tableware, a joint survey conducted in 2020, 42 samples of disposable food packaging and tableware made of paper, cardboard, or molded vegetable fibers from Czech, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK were tested for PFAS, of which 32 were intentionally treated with PFAS, meaning that more than 70% of the products contained PFAS. Currently, compostable standards with international credibility include BPI in the US, TUV and DIN CERTCO in Europe, as well as ABA in Australia, all requiring the manufacturers of products applying for certification to sign a self-declaration to guarantee that no PFAS are added to the ingredients and that the fluoride content detected must be lower than 100ppm. Consequently, only with certified compostable plant fiber food packaging and tableware such as renouvo, whose materials and products have been certified by BPI, DIN CERTCO, TUV, and ABA, can we make sure that they do not contain PFAS.

What types of food packaging are covered by current law?

Since the water- and oil-resistant properties needed by food packaging can be replaced by wax or bio-based plastics, almost every type of food packaging is within the scope of PFAS laws and regulations. The most common regulated food packaging includes:

  • Sandwich and burrito bags
  • Hamburger and bread bags
  • Hamburger boxes
  • Dinner plates
  • Food boats
  • Popcorn bags
  • Waffle bags
  • Baking paper
  • Pizza boxes
  • Sleeves
  • Bread bags
  • Coffee bean bags
  • Flat plates and trays
  • French fries boxes
  • Food cups
  • Lunch boxes with lids

Take action to reduce our exposure to PFAS in food packaging

Food packaging is where we are most likely to be exposed to PFAS and one of the easiest ways for PFAS to enter the human body. To avoid exposure to PFAS, we can choose food packaging that is certified to be compostable or PFAS-free, or we can simply use stainless steel containers. For more ways to avoid PFAS, please read “How to avoid PFAS? 12 ways to Reduce Your Exposure to PFAS.” In addition, to understand the regulatory progress of PFAS restrictions or bans in the US, please refer to various state governments’ announcements and the FDA website:

As well as the EPA website:

For the EU, please refer to the ECHA website: