Test of chemicals in disposable tableware

31. maj 2021

Disposable tableware of palm leaves may contain pesticide residues. Despite a Danish ban, there is also still a content of fluorinated substances in tableware made of molded sugar cane.

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Photo: Anne Beck Christensen

Prohibition of single-use plastic plates and straws

Single-use plastic products such as straws, cutlery and plates will be banned in the EU from the summer of 2021. The ban has been adopted to limit plastic pollution in nature.

The forthcoming ban means that single-use tableware made of many materials other than plastic is now taking over. It can be, for example, disposable tableware of palm leaves, cardboard, paper or molded fibers from sugar cane or wheat.

However, they may contain unwanted substances that may affect your health or the environment.

Every other product in the test contains unwanted chemicals in quantities above national recommendations or rules.

See test with pictures of products from the Danish marked (link to test in Danish)

Continued use of fluorinated subtances

In 15 products from the Danish market, 5 plates contain fluorinated subtances above the Danish indicator value. The 5 plates are made of so-called bagasse, which are molded sugar cane fibers.

Fluorinated substances are used to make products more water and fat repellent. However, the substances can be problematic for both the environment and health.

The use of fluorinated substances is banned in this type of food packaging from the summer of 2020. However, manufacturers are allowed to sell out the packaging treated with fluorinated substances that are produced before the ban came into force. Several manufacturers state that this is exactly the case for the tested products with high level of fluorinated substances.

3 of the Danish products tested contain Chloropropanol (3-MCPD), which is suspected to be carcinogenic. 1 of the tested products contains aluminum which can affect the nervous system.

See all test from The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals

Pesticides end up in tableware

Pesticides can be present in products made from materials from cultivated crops. It can be, for example, sugar cane, wheat or oil palms. Some pesticides are suspected to be endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic.

In the test, 3 out of 10 tested palm leaf and sugar cane tablewares from the Danish marked contain pesticides.

The content of pesticides found in the tested products is not in itself problematic. If it migrates into the food on the plate, the amount does not exceed what is accepted in food.

However, there are no rules or guidelines for pesticides in food packaging and disposable tableware and the test shows that disposable tableware can be an additional source to the overall cummulative exposure to the problematic substances.

Results for Danish products are similar to the European ones

The testing of the disposable packaging is part of a European collaboration, where 57 different packaging have been tested.

The result from the Danish test agrees well with the rest of the European test results.

In 54 percent of all the single-use products tested, problematic substances have been found at levels above existing national guidelines and recommendations.

See BEUCs summary of the full European test (External link)

About the test

How we tested

In collaboration with consumer organizations from France, Italy and Spain the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals has investigated a wide range of disposable tableware for the content of undesirable substances. All the tested packaging is used for food or drink. 

57 products have been tested. All of them were bought in November and December 2020. 15 of them were bought in Denmark.

Overall, the following have been purchased and tested: 
•    Plates and bowls of molded sugar cane or wheat fiber 
•    Paper straws 
•    Plates and bowls of palm leaves 

Of the 15 products purchased in Denmark, there are 5 products from each category. 

Not all products are tested the same. We have instead selected the most relevant analyzes for the different material types.

Depending on the material, the product has been tested for: 
•    Fluorinated substances that can be used to make the material more water and fat repellent. 
•    Chloropropanols, such as 3-MCPD, which is a contaminant that can occur in production. 
•    Pesticides that may originate from the cultivation of the raw material or used in production. 
•    Heavy metals and aluminum that can be found as contaminants. 
•    Primary aromatic amines that can be used in certain dyes. 
•    Bisphenol A, which can be used as in varnish and surface treatments or can occur as a contaminant. 

The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals’ test methods

What we found

The result from Denmark:

For the 15 products from the Danish market, the results are as follows:

•    5 products are without the substances we tested for or contain minor amounts under the guidelines and recommendations that apply. They all get the best chemicals rating A
•    3 products contain either pesticides or fluorides around the value indicating intended use. They get average chemicals rating B
•    7 products either contain fluorides well above the value indicating intended use, or contain chloropropanol (3-MCPD) or aluminum in levels above the recommendations applicable in Germany for cardboard and paper packaging for food. They get the lowest chemicals rating C

Divided by the individual substances, we found:

Fluorinated substances above the Danish indicator value in 5 out of 5 tested sugar cane plates. Only one in 5 straws contained fluorinated substances around the Danish indikator value indicating intended use.
Chloropropanols above the German recommendation in 3 out of 10 tested straws and sugar cane plates.
Pesticides in 3 out of 10 tested palm leaf and sugar cane plates.
Aluminum above the German recommendation in 1 out of the 15 tested products.

In the Danish samples, we did not find content of primary aromatic amines or bisphenol A.

Result from the overall European study:

The overall result for the entire European survey is similar to the result from Denmark.

•    54%, or 31 out of 57 investigated packaging contained fluorinated substances, aluminum, 3-MCPD or primary aromatic amines in quantities above national guidelines and recommendations. For 8 of the 31 products, there was a high content of at least two groups of substances.
•    21% or 12 out of 57 products contained the investigated substances at levels around the national guidelines and recommendations or contained pesticides for which, to our knowledge, there are no specific guidelines.
•    The remaining 25% (14 products) had no content or content below recommended levels.

Divided by the individual substances, we found:

Fluorinated substances above the Danish indicator value in 27 out of 41 tested straws and sugar cane plates.
Chloropropanols above the German recommendation in 11 out of 41 tested straws and sugar cane plates.
Pesticides in 11 out of 39 tested palm leaf and sugar cane plates.
Aluminum above the German recommendation in 3 out of the 18 straws tested.
Primary aromatic amines above the limit value for plastic packaging in 1 out of 18 straws tested.

We did not find the content of bisphenol A or other bisphenols or heavy metals in the products we have examined for the substances in question.

See BEUCs summary of the full European test (External link)

Fluorinated substances (PFAS)

The fluorinated substances cover a large group of chemical substances that, among other things, have water, dirt and grease-repellent properties. The substances are used in a wide range of everyday products such as clothes, shoes, packaging and personal care products.

Fluorinated substances can have negative effects on your health and the environment. Fluorinated substances are persistent in th environment difficult to break down and can accumulate in both humans and nature.
Increased risk of cancer, efeects on the immune system, increased risk of miscarriage, lower birth weight and endocrine disruption are among the negative effects that fluorinated substances can have.

Since the summer of 2020, fluorinated substances have not been allowed to be used in Denmark in cardboard and paper that come in contact with food. This is a special Danish law that does not apply in the rest of the EU. However, manufacturers are allowed to sell out of the PFAS-treated products produced before the ban came into force. Therefore, there may still be products treated with fluorinated substances on the Danish market.

The Danish ban covers the entire group of fluorinated substances, and we therefore do not investigate for content of specific fluorinated substances. Instead, we check the total content of organic fluorinated substances in the products, which indicates whether the product has been treated with fluorinated substances.

The test shows that fluorinated substances are particularly prevalent in the products made from molded fibers from sugar cane or wheat. All products of that material contained fluorinated substances in amounts indicating intended use. Based on the test, several manufacturers have confirmed the intended use of fluorinated substances in the products. They also state that the tested products were produced before the ban came into force.

Chloropropanols

Chloropropanols such as 3-MCPD can be formed during the production of paper and similar materials.
The substances are suspected to be carcinogenic.

3-MCPD and similar substances have primarily caused concern in food, where they occur as pollution during heat treatment of, among other things, plant-based fats and oils.

Food contact materials should not contribute to the additional content of 3-MCPD in the food. In Germany there is recommended limits for the content of selected chloropropanols in food packaging materials. Similar recommendations does not exist in Denmark.

3-MCPD was found in several of the paper straws and sugar cane products.

Pesticides

Pesticides can originate from the production of the food crops from which the products are made.These are, for example, sugar cane and oil palms.  The unwanted substances can also come from the drying process.

Pesticides are toxins. A pesticide such as anthraquinone found in one of the disposable plates is classified as potentially carcinogenic. Another pesticide found, Tebuconazole, is suspected to be endocrine disrupting.

There are no rules for pesticides in food packaging, disposable tableware and other materials in contact with food.

We found these pesticides in the products

•    Anthraquinone
•    Tebuconazole
•    Cyhalothrin
•    Bifenthrin
•    Diphenylamine
•    Diphenylamine
•    Glyphosate
•    o-Phenylphenol

In the test, we measured the contents in the plates themselves.

The measured content was in no case higher than if all the measured pesticide migrated into the food on a plate, the pesticide content of the food would be less than the corresponding limit value (MRL) for pesticide in food.

However, pesticides in food contact materials are a source of exposure that is not properly addressed by law. These are substances that, for example, can be endocrine disrupting or carcinogenic, and which we should therefore be exposed to as little as possible overall.

Therefore, products containing pesticides receive a "medium" rating.

Aluminum

Humans are exposed to aluminum from many different sources. Especially from food. In general, our intake of the substance is relatively high.

Too much aluminum can affect the nervous system as well as our kidneys and bones. Therefore, the intake of aluminum from sources other than food, where it is naturally occurring, should be kept as low as possible.

The German Risk Assessment Institute (BfR) has recently updated their recommendations for the content of aluminum in food packaging of paper and cardboard. There are no corresponding recommendations in Denmark.

In several of the paper straws tested, we found a content of aluminum in quantities above the German recommendations.

Primary aromatic amines

Primary aromatic amines are a group of chemical substances that are used in the production of certain dyes, among other things. The so-called azo dyes. If the dyes are used for colored prints on the food packaging, the primary aromatic amines can also be found in the packaging.

Several of the primary aromatic amines are or are suspected of being carcinogenic and of damaging our genetics. Many of the substances are classified in the EU as potentially carcinogenic.

Primary aromatic amines have previously been found in, among other things, straws and colored coffee cups

Test: Unwanted chemicals in colorful foodpackaging

What the companies say

Duni, which produces a plate with fluorinated substances:

Duni states that the tested product was produced before the ban on fluorinated substances.

Duni expects that the last products produced before the ban will be sold out of retail stores during the spring of 2021, and during the summer of 2021 they will bring new bagasse products to market without fluorinated substances. It has been important for Duni to develop new bagasse products that have the same functionalities without flour, which has been a difficult process.

Plant2Plast, which among other things produces a plate that contains fluorinated substances, chloropropanol and pesticides:

“We try to offer environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic tableware. The raw materials we use include by-products from food production, for example palm leaves from betel nut palms and sugar cane fiber.
The challenge is that as long as it is allowed to spray the food, these substances will also be in the by-products that we use for packaging. Here, however, I would think that it is far worse that the spray residues are found in the food than in the tableware, which after all not being eaten. ”

“It is kind of the same problem for fluorinated substances, where Denmark took the lead. That meant we had to stop importing bagasse products (fiber from sugar cane, ed.) last year because all bagasse products had added fluorinated substances and no could produce something without fluorinated substances. Meanwhile the company has now developed a bagasse product without fluorinated substances. ”

MultiLine, which is responsible for two plates. One treated with fluorinated substances and a palm leaf plate with pesticide:

"We have been informed that the products in this test were purchased from a sub-dealer for MultiLine, and we therefore have no opportunity to check the products."