10 Things To Know Before You Eat Out Of That “Compostable” Takeaway Bowl

6 Mins Read

You’ve surely seen the rise in fibre bowls. Light in weight, brown in colour, and clearly marked as compostable, biodegradable, plant-based – these have sprouted all over town in cafés and restaurants, replacing styrofoam or wax-lined paper cups in a bid to “go green”. They’ve become the food industry’s widely adopted measure, representing some kind of corporate, social and environmental responsibility status. And they’ve become a consumer trend too – to alleviate the guilt associated with take-out packaging. However, these moulded fibre bowls are much less eco-friendly than you think, and might even pose health risks. Recent testing by The New Food Economy has revealed that all fibre bowls contain a class of chemicals called PFAS, which have been dubbed “forever chemicals”. Before you feel good about eating out of an instagram-friendly fibre bowl, here are 10 facts you should know. 

1. Every Single Fibre Product Contains PFAS

Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of man-made chemicals used to manufacture a wide range of commercial products. Since its inception in the 1940s, there are now over 5000 different types of PFAS on the market, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Because PFAS are impermeable to grease, water and oil, they are applied in many products that need to be liquid-resistant, such as food containers, bowls, cups and plates. But they come with a major downside – they are not naturally biodegradable. In fact, these compounds last so long that they have been dubbed “forever chemicals”. And every single moulded fibre bowl, cup and plate meant for food service is coated in a layer of PFAS-containing film, without which these fibre products would simply disintegrate. Testing fibre bowls from 14 locations of 8 different restaurants in New York, the New Food Economy found that all samples contained high levels of fluorine indicative of PFAS compound treatment. 

2. There Are Barely Any Regulations On The Use Of PFAS

In 2011, long-chain types of PFAS were phased out of production in the United States by the FDA after the serious health risks associated with these compounds became exposed – which included links to thyroid disorders, kidney and testicular cancers and colitis. But 62 PFAS continue to be approved for use by the FDA in food in the US alone. Many countries, especially in Asia, continue to have little to no regulations on the use of PFAS in products

3. Public Health Implications Are Still Unclear, But There Are Associated Dangers

Yes, the most dangerous types of PFAS have been banned in the US, but this does not confirm that other PFAS varieties are any safer. In a 2017 study published in peer-reviewed journal Environmental and Science Technology Letters, long-term sublethal health risks connected to FDA-approved shorter-chain PFAS include cancers, low birth weight, thyroid complications and immunotoxicity in children. In addition, the bio-persistence of all PFAS chemicals as an entire class should be a cause for concern, even in low concentrations. They are likely to stick around in our bodies for a long time, taking years to exit our system completely. 

4. Fibre Products Have Actually Been Around For A While, But Became Popular After Plastic Bans

Moulded fibre dishware, food packaging and cutlery aren’t new inventions. They have been traditionally used in standard egg cartons, made out of wood pulp or bagasse, the fibrous material left over from juiced sugarcanes. But now, they have become ubiquitous across eateries and takeaways thanks to “green” consumer trends and government bans on styrofoam and other plastic products. Businesses needed a convenience-friendly replacement and settled on moulded fibre bowls, which became the perfect solution for operators to telegraph supposedly sustainable practices, and make “eco-conscious” diners feel virtuous. All hail the halo branding effect.

5. Companies Are Lying To You If They Claim To Be PFAS-Free

The New Food Economy’s testing, which involved sending moulded fibre bowls from American chains who have hailed these as “compostable” (like Sweetgreen and Chipotle), to Notre Dame chemical scientist Graham Peaslee, found traces of fluorine, indicating at least some treatment using PFAS, in all samples. Their findings follow a May 2019 report by a number of environmental non-profit agencies titled Take Out Toxics, which revealed that these chemicals were present in cardboard food containers and grease-resistant paper wraps. These findings should sound alarm bells for consumers, since many restaurants who have adopted fibre bowls openly market them as environmentally friendly, compostable and toxin-free. 

6. This Means Fibre Bowls Are Not Compostable Or Biodegradable

It follows that any fibre food packaging and dishware pitched to you as “100% biodegradable and compostable” is also a false claim. Since fibre must be treated with a film of the resistant compound of some sort, these products are likely to in fact make compost more toxic. Although the manufacturing process of fibre bowls generates less greenhouse gases than other plastic-based containers, fibre products are still polluting soil and water. With no known half-life, these indestructible compounds remain a part of the earth forever – as the material of the bowl slowly degrades, the “forever chemicals” seep into waterways and contaminate arable topsoil, not to mention the compost they biodegrade into. 

7. Some Steps Are Being Taken, But It’s Problematic In Asia

Short-chain PFAS have recently been classified by the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) as of “very high concern”, and European regulators plan to introduce new limits on PFAS by 2020. But because regulation is sparse in the Asian Pacific, PFA contamination is widespread in the region. IPEN’s Asia and Middle East report indicates that coastal waters in Bangladesh, Japan and Malaysia are rife with the chemical, and some research has found them in drinking water in India, Thailand and Vietnam. 

8. Misleading “Compostable” Certification Has Led To Contamination In Fruit & Vegetables

Advertised as ecological, fibre foodware gets mistakenly thrown into compost facilities. Bowls, plates and cups made out of plant-based fibres but fluorinated with PFAs are now contaminating compost sites and the food crops it is used on. In June 2019, a study prompted by Zero-Waste Washington’s Heather Trim found that sites that accepted foodware had 10 times the PFAS than sites that did not. This is worrying, since research has also shown that PFAS are easily absorbed by fruit and vegetable crops. 

9. There ARE Viable Commercial Alternatives

The Biodegradable Packaging Institute (BPI), a third-party certifier that assesses whether a product is compostable will shift their stance on fluorinated chemicals in 2020 (they originally certified moulded fibre bowls as biodegradable and compostable). Once this kicks in, businesses can adopt other alternatives on the market that are safer and a little better, such as shallow waxed cups and cardboard takeout boxes lined with plant bioplastic. Startups are also developing exciting toxic-free, eco-friendly opportunities – many of which are burgeoning in Asia, such as Philippines’s mango-seaweed bioplastic and Hong Kong’s water-soluble Hydroplast

10. It’s Kind Of Our Fault

Here’s the thing. We’re part of the problem, and we have to own up to our role in letting this happen. Driven by our obsession with convenience, businesses have exploited our taste for immediate satisfaction and minimal effort. We have subconsciously (and at times, consciously) obliged to their shift in business strategy that appeals to the ultimate comfort-loving human. Companies can only capitalise on a trend that we as consumers have nodded along to. Cue an explosion of meal plan, meal delivery (from right up the street), meal kit (pre-portioned food) startups, and food providers offering more and more takeaway options and partnering up with the likes of FoodPanda and Deliveroo to deliver food to our doorstep. And to abate our guilt, and theirs, consumers and companies alike have fuelled the rise of the instagrammable, “eco-friendly”, millennial-approved moulded fibre bowl. It’s hard to swallow. Literally.

Conclusion: The Safest (And Greenest) Bet Is To Bring Your Own Bowl

…and container, glass jar, reusable mug, cutlery, or whatever it is you will use to eat things on the go. This is the safest option for your health, and the most zero-waste action that you can take. 

Lead image courtesy of Flickr.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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