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Considering the Alternatives to PFAS in Paper Food Packaging

Per‐ and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used in food contact paper and paperboard for decades due to their unique ability to provide both moisture and oil/grease resistance. This article1 reviews the development of PFAS, their use in food service items, and present alternatives to PFAS chemicals for providing moisture and oil/grease resistance in food packaging.

Once thought to be innocuous, it is now clear that long chain PFAS bioaccumulate and are linked to reproductive and developmental abnormalities, suppressed immune response, and tumour formation. The search is on to find viable replacements for PFAS chemical that are cost-effective and environmentally sound.

Second‐generation PFAS have shorter biological half‐lives but concerns about health risks from chronic exposure underscore the need for safe substitutes. Waxes and polymer film laminates of polyethylene, poly(ethylene‐co‐vinyl alcohol), and polyethylene terephthalate are commonly used alternatives. However, such laminates are neither compostable nor recyclable. Lamination with biodegradable polymers, including polyesters, such as polylactic acid (PLA), polybutylene adipate terephthalate, polybutylene succinate, and polyhydroxyalkanoates, are of growing research and commercial interest. PLA films are perhaps the most viable alternative, but performance and compostability are suboptimal. Surface sizings and coatings of starches, chitosan, alginates, micro‐ and nanofibrilated cellulose, and gelatins provide adequate oil barrier properties but have poor moisture resistance without chemical modification. Plant proteins, including soy, wheat gluten, and corn zein, have been tested as paper coatings with soy being the most commercially important. Internal sizing agents, such as alkyl ketene dimers, alkenyl succinic anhydride, and rosin, improve moisture resistance but are poor oil/grease barriers. The difficulty in finding a viable replacement for PFAS chemicals that is cost‐effective, fully biodegradable, and environmentally sound underscores the need for more research to improve barrier properties and process economics in food packaging products.

The United Nations has set a goal of reducing food waste 50% by the year 2030 to help conserve resources and to help meet the growing demand for food in the face of a growing global population.2,3 Achieving this goal will undoubtedly require advances in food packaging systems. Food packaging plays an essential role in protecting and preserving food products from contamination and physical damage during shipping, storage, handling, and serving.4 Food packaging, particularly plastic food packaging, is often seen in a negative light due to its impact on the environment. However, such assessments seldom consider the vast amount of resources that are saved by food packaging simply by reducing food waste and maintaining food safety.

Single‐use food containers constitute an important segment of packaging. Food service ware provides a sanitary means of serving foods, typically for immediate consumption. Items, such as clamshell containers, plates, bowls, and cups, are lightweight, strong, and provide a convenient way to dine on the go, facilitate outdoor dining, serve crowds at large institutional events, save significant energy, equipment, and labour costs compared with institutional dishwashing of reusable items, or simply make dine‐in family events easier.5,6  Despite decades of innovation that has contributed to the current packaging technology, the industry continues to evolve and grapple to improve the safety, aesthetics, functionality, sustainability, and environmental footprint of food packaging.

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1. G. Glenn et al., Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety , March 2021. (
2. C. Chen, A. Chaudhary & A. Mathys, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 160, 104912 (2020).
3. United Nations,  Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development  ( 2015 ) . 
4. B.G. Werner, J.L. Koontz, & J.M. Goddard, Current Opinion in Food Science , 16, 40–48 (2017).
5. Environmental Protection Agency . ( 2019a ).  Advancing sustainable materials management:  Fact Sheet (2017). 
6. T.P. Wagner, Policy instruments to reduce consumption of expanded polystyrene food service ware in the USA. Detritus , 9, 11–26 (2020).