If you’ve grabbed lunch at a Sweetgreen before, you likely felt pretty virtuous as you tossed your takeout container, knowing that it’s “100 percent compostable.”
But the truth about those takeaway bowls is a lot less pleasant. According to The Counter (formerly The New Food Economy), all molded fiber bowls contain PFAS; a nasty class of chemicals that do not naturally biodegrade. That means that the compostable food containers you’ve been throwing out are not, in fact, compostable. In fact, they contain hazardous, unhealthy components that never break down.
However, Sweetgreen just took a big step to get rid of PFAS and make their to-go containers truly compostable. The fast-casual chain partnered with Footprint, a company fighting single-use plastic packaging, to develop a new line of biodegradable bowls that are completely devoid of PFAS (h/t FastCompany). Sweetgreen launched the bowls first in San Francisco earlier this year, since new legislation requires that as of January 1, 2020, all single-use food service ware (containers, cups, etc) in SF must be PFAS-free.
The containers are made of fibers from bagasse, an agricultural waste product, which is blended, heated, and covered with a natural coating so it won’t leak. The lids for Sweetgreen’s to-go containers are currently plastic, but the company plans to start selling lids made of the same compostable material soon. Sweetgreen has plans to roll out the compostable bowls at all of its stores nationwide in 2020.
Sweetgreen is one of several restaurant chains with high numbers of to-go orders that is increasing its sustainability efforts. Its competitor, Just Salad, recently announced plans to send zero waste to landfills by 2022. Coffee chain Blue Bottle aims to divert at least 90 percent of its waste from landfills by the end of this year.
On the fast food side, Taco Bell aims to implement PFAS-free sustainable consumer-facing packaging by 2025. Starbucks will switch to reusable packaging by 2030 in a bid to cut its landfill waste by half. And McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Subway, and Burger King have all made their own pledges to reduce single-use and plastic.
In a time when worry over COVID-19 could be making restaurants more hesitant to accept consumer’s reusable containers — Starbucks, for example, has stopped letting customers use their own drinking vessels — better to-go packaging is more needed than ever before. But implementing truly recyclable or compostable packaging is much easier said than done, even as more cities mandate PFAS-free to-go containers.
With its new biodegradable bowls, Sweetgreen shows that it’s taking sustainability seriously. The move should put some pressure on fast-casual competitors like Chipotle, Panera, Chopt, and more, to follow suit and step up their to-go container game.