Supermarkets and the problem with harmful forever chemicals in food packaging 

Are we simply swapping plastic for PFAS?

Dr Kerry Dinsmore of environmental charity Fidra explains how chemicals of concern, PFAS, risk undermining the environmental benefits of many so called ‘sustainable’ packaging alternatives, and why almost 12,000 people have joined together to ask UK supermarkets to take action to remove harmful forever chemicals from UK food packaging.

With widespread public concern over the impact plastic pollution is having on our seas and our environment, the food sector has increasingly found itself scrambling for solutions. This has led to a rapid increase in the use of alternative materials, such as paper, cardboard and moulded fibre (think eco branded containers replacing polystyrene for your fish and chips). These are generally easier to recycle, compost, and dispose of, without risking the dreaded social media posts of wildlife entangled in branded plastic. But the story doesn’t end there!

To prevent your sausage roll soaking through its paper bag, or deliciously greasy chips eroding a hole in a sugarcane compostable container, these materials need to be treated. They need to be grease proof and water resistant. Unfortunately, one of the cheapest and easiest ways to achieve this is with per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances, PFAS, otherwise known as ‘Forever Chemicals’.

The persistent problem with PFAS

PFAS are a group of highly persistent industrial chemicals, associated with a wide range of health and environmental issues, from cancer in humans to neurological problems in wildlife. Of particular concern in our current climate is the mounting evidence linking exposure to immune system suppression, reduced vaccine efficacy, and even an increased risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

PFAS are known as the ‘forever chemicals’ because of their extreme persistence. Rather than breaking down in the environment, they persist and accumulate, some taking over 1000 years to degrade.  As such, almost all the PFAS ever produced are still in our environment today, and while we continue to use and produce PFAS, concentrations will continue to grow.

PFAS are currently used in a huge variety of everyday products, many of which you probably have in your home right now. For example, they are often used in stain-resistant carpets, water-repellent outdoor gear, cosmetics, cleaning products and non-stick frying pans. They are also used in fire-fighting foams, industrial applications and lubricants in everything from wind turbines to bike oils. Even our food now comes packaged in PFAS .

Despite no natural sources, PFAS are now found in our oceans, soils, air and wildlife all across the globe, from pole to pole and from the tundra to the tropics. They’ve been recorded in seabirds, seals, polar bears, food crops, drinking water and in 99% of people tested. Babies are now born with PFAS already in their bodies.

How do we solve the PFAS problem?

We can’t remove PFAS once they’re in the wider environment, the only way to tackle them is to cut them out at source.

The EU have already committed to ban all PFAS across all sectors, unless their use is considered essential to society. Denmark banned PFAS in food packaging in July 2020, after a leading Danish supermarket did it voluntarily as far back as 2015. Even global food giants McDonalds and Nestle have committed to removing PFAS from their food packaging.

Ultimately, UK legislation is needed to prevent this ongoing source of harmful pollution, but legislation takes time and when we’re dealing with persistent chemicals, time is not an option. Every day we wait, more PFAS are being produced, used and disposed of, and every day we ignore this growing issue, is another day of environmental contamination we can’t take back.

What can you do?

Fidra, alongside almost 12,000 members of the public, are calling for UK supermarkets, including Aldi, ASDA, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Morrisons, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, to recognize the urgency of this issue and take immediate, voluntary action. We’re asking that they remove all PFAS from their food packaging, ensuring they don’t simply replace visible plastic pollution with this hidden, more toxic, chemical alternative.
 
We’re asking the public to get involved and test their own packaging for PFAS, and help us build a better picture of how widespread this problem really is. You can:

To find out more about PFAS, and to learn how to carry out the simple ‘bead test’, visit the PFAS Free website.

(Detailed references to the sources of information are available on the PFAS Free website.)