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 [using fluorinated chemistries],” says Troy Swope, CEO of Footprint. “To eliminate [PFAS], to create an oil barrier that doesn’t need it, takes a lot of engineering.”
Footprint, founded in 2013, initially explored using PFAS itself, but then quickly recognized that it was going to be a problem, and began engineering a different design. While they won’t reveal the exact process, it starts with using a giant blender to blend up fibers. (Later this year, the company will begin using post-consumer recycled paper, but it currently uses bagasse, an agricultural waste product.) The oatmeal-like bath of fibers is shaped into the mold of the bowl, treated with heat, pressure, and coated with a bio-based coating. “Once it’s cured, it gives a really nice finish,” Swope says. “I think we’re enhancing what you can get out of China today, in addition to eliminating harmful chemicals.”
Sweetgreen explored other options for PFAS-free packaging, but decided to work with Footprint, both because the company has factories in the U.S. and because it was exploring new sources of fiber, including the recycled paper that will be used in Sweetgreen bowls rolling out later this year. “That material has already been used to ship something from Amazon, or whatever, to your home, and now we’re repurposing that paper into a Sweetgreen bowl,” says Swope.
After testing in its own lab, the restaurant chain launched the bowl first in San Francisco, where a new law took effect January 1 banning PFAS in takeout containers. Now, the chain plans to roll out the new packaging across the country. Lids, which are currently plastic, will also be made from the new material.
Footprint’s aim is to replace as much conventional packaging as possible, and the company is already working with other large food companies on packaged food containers for grocery stores. “Our objective is to provide the technologies that enable our customers to get out of plastic,” says Swope.
Because plastic is so cheap, many brands have struggled to stop using it. But Swope says that its packaging is already competitive. “In some of our product categories, we’ll start shipping hundreds of millions of units to guys at Conagra and Tyson and Walmart, and we’re at or near plastic parity today,” he says. “Our whole mission, from day one, was that we wanted to have a massive, massive impact on the globe. And for us to do that, not only [did we have] to meet or equal plastic performance from a shelf-life standpoint, improved protection standpoint, but also from a price standpoint.”
Because of consumer awareness of the problem of plastic waste, including plastic in the food chain, companies are now ready to move to alternatives, he says. “The reality is consumers and big brand owners like Sweetgreen are really driving change. They are in front of this. People want this. They want to do better.”
Correction: We’ve updated this post to reflect the fact that other compostable packaging companies use chlorinated, not fluoridated chemistries to coat their packaging.