The Problem with PFAS: How your Biodegradable Coffee Cup Might be Wreaking Havok in the Compost Bin

Y.J. Choi et al. Perfluoroalkyl acid characterization in U.S. municipal organic solid waste composts. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Published online May 29, 2019. doi: 10.1021/acs.estlett.9b00280.

It’s January. The beginning of a new year and a new decade is finally upon us. With the new year comes an over abundant use of #NewYearNewMe and millions of resolutions that will be abandoned by February. If you are one of the three people who stick with your resolution, then congratulations. I and the billions of other failures are so very proud of you.

But in all seriousness, the new year is a great time for self-improvement. With the climate related issue our planet is facing, many woke individuals might be planning to become more eco-conscious in the new year. If you are going green in 2020, read through this article to learn about the potentially harmful material you want to avoid tossing into that new $150 composter you bought off Amazon.

A study published in the Environmental Science & Technology Letters found composting biodegradable food containers results in elevated levels of potentially dangerous chemical compounds.

Biodegradable food containers often contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl acids. These acids are a subset of a group of chemical compounds known as PFAS. PFAS are a class of thousands of man-made chemicals that have been used commercially since the 1940s. You have probably interacted with PFAS hundreds of times in your life. The oil and water resistant compounds can be found in paints, polishes, cleaning solutions, non-stick products, and dozens of other commercial goods, including many biodegradable food and beverage containers.

Figure 1: A non-stick skillet coated in PFAS. Source: Flickr

Though helpful in the production of commercial goods, certain PFAS have been proven to cause adverse health effects when ingested. Noted side effects include evaluated cholesterol, hormone disruption, low infant birth weight, cancer and immune deficiency. Particular PFAS including Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) have been fazed out of commercial production in the United States for this reason. Little research has been done on the health risks of many PFAS still used in commercial goods.

The problem with PFAS is their persistence. The compounds are difficult to break down and as a result they can accumulate in the environment and in the human body. Ingesting a small amount of a PFAS compound would not harm you in the moment; however, repetitive consumption and the resulting accumulation of the chemical could be detrimental to your health.

Inside the Bin

Microorganisms live inside compost bins. Their job is a very important one. They are responsible for breakdown organic matter. Microbes do their best to pull PFAS apart, but despite their best efforts, they cannot fully unravel the complex chemical structures. As a mater of fact, researchers found that the microbes simply break PFAS down into different smaller compounds such as perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAS), which do not differ much from a human health perspective.

Figure 2: Backyard compost bin filled with food scraps. Source: Pixabay (Ben Kerckx)

Researchers collected samples from 10 commercial composting facilities. Seven of the ten facilities accepted biodegradable food containers. The samples taken at facilities that accepted food containers contained PFAAS measurements three to nine times as high as the facilities that did not accept food containers. These readings prove that PFAS leech into the compost. This becomes a major concern when said contaminated compost is used as fertilizer. Scientists believe it is possible for PFAS to be absorbed by plants. As a result, the plants would accumulate the compound, as would any animal that consumed the plant.

To understand what happens when you try to recycle your biodegradable coffee cup, researchers collected samples from 10 commercial composting facilities. Seven of the ten facilities accepted biodegradable food containers. The samples taken at facilities that accepted food containers contained PFAAS measurements three to nine times as high as the facilities that did not accept food containers. These readings prove that PFAS leech into the compost. This becomes a major concern when said contaminated compost is used as fertilizer. Scientists believe it is possible for PFAS to be absorbed by plants. As a result, the plants would accumulate the compound, as would any animal that consumed the plant.

Inside the Body

It is unknown what the accumulation of the PFAS  used in biodegradable food containers does the human body.  have been proven to cause adverse effects on human health, but no research has been done on PFAAS.

Looking Forward

Figure 3: Woman working in the garden. Source: Pxfuel

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint in the new year, don’t give up hope. Check out these easy tips for going green in 2020.

  1. Reduce waste by being conscientious of packaging. Buy fewer items online. Look for products sold with little to no wrapping. Bring reusable containers to purchase bulk goods and produce from the grocery.
  2. Conserve energy. Embrace natural lighting. Do not wait for the water to heat up; hop into that cold shower. It’s invigorating!
  3. Do your research. If you are looking to become eco-conscience, make sure to educate yourself. Pick up a book, do a quick Google search, or speak to like-minded individuals to learn about sustainable practices.
  4. Start a compost. Fill it with food scraps and worms. Do not fill it with chemical-laden food containers. The worms and plants will thank you.
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Laine Farber

Laine Farber

I am recent graduate of Louisiana State University. With a background in journalism and a love of science, I have a passion for making science stories easy to understand and enjoyable to read. I am currently working in the education department of an environmental non-profit based out of New Orleans and stepping into the highly competitive freelance journalism game. When I am not rewriting a textbook or chasing down a story, you can find me walking along the lakefront, painting or feeding dry corn to ducks. For more information follow me on Twitter at @lfarber14 or Instagram @lainefarber.

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