Real talk, one of my favorite foods to eat is Chipotle (yes, despite that E. coli scandal.). The Mexican-inspired restaurant chain prides itself on having a sustainable image by sourcing its food from local suppliers and using packaging that’s plant-based and compostable.
However, a new report out Monday says that these plant fiber bowls restaurants like Chipotle and Sweetgreen use may contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS. They’ve been called “forever” chemicals because they stay in the environment for, like, ever and have been linked to a number of health issues, like increased cholesterol levels and even cancer.
Yet these chemicals can be found in a number of common food packaging items from that paper wrapper on your burger to that microwavable popcorn in your cabinet. That’s because it keeps the paper dry and prevents food from sticking or ripping through the paper. Apparently, my beloved Chipotle bowl (or your dear Sweetgreen bowl) isn’t safe, either.
The report comes from nonprofit newsroom the New Food Economy, which worked with a scientist to test bowls from 14 locations of eight restaurants in New York. This problem isn’t limited to giant chains like Chipotle or Sweetgreen. The analysis also looked at packaging from local and regional chains including Little Beet, Mangia, Urbanspace, and Dos Toros (another love of mine).
The tests showed that bowls from nearly all places tested contained high levels of fluorine, an indicator of PFAS. The bowls averaged fluorine levels of 1,740 parts per million. The authors do note that the bowls likely contain newer forms of the chemical group, which haven’t been studied as closely, as many older forms of PFAS are now illegal to use. The health risks aren’t as well understood, but what doesn’t change is the chemicals’ ability to last in the environment.
The concern, however, isn’t that people getting exposed to high levels of PFAS from a single serving of Chipotle. It’s about where that bowl goes after you finish your meal. These bowls can be composted, and that means these chemicals may wind up in the soil and water where the compost mixtures are used.
Chipotle said in a statement that its packaging suppliers “operate under strict guidelines set forth by the FDA, and have all provided Chipotle with certification that all raw material and finished pulp products fully meet regulatory requirements.”
These chemicals don’t just go away, meaning we’ll live with the consequences for generations. California recently passed a law requiring water utilities to monitor local water supplies for the chemicals and inform the public if they find anything. More cities and states (like Michigan and Vermont) are putting tighter regulations to ensure they know when their water systems have become compromised. After all, it’s not like the federal government is doing much to protect the public from PFAS.
Earther has reached out to Sweetgreen for comment and will update if we hear back.
Update 5:45 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to include a comment from Chipotle.