It seems like there’s been more and more talk about PFAs lately, but what are they? PFAs is an abbreviation for per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances, a class consisting of thousands of different chemicals. These substances can be found in all sorts of products, from cosmetics, to clothing, to paint, to non-stick cookware, to fast food wrappers. PFAs are also called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment; they are the most persistent synthetic compounds known to man at this time.

PFAs have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, causing hormonal imbalances in humans and animals alike. These chemicals can affect reproduction, fetal development, immune response, and may also be linked to the growth of certain types of cancers. Unfortunately, PFAs are incredibly difficult to avoid. The vast majority of Americans have measurable levels of PFAs in their blood. People can be exposed to PFAs through the air that they breathe, the water that they drink, the food that they eat, and the products that they come into contact with. Due to their harmful nature, it is in our best interest to limit our exposure to PFAs by being conscious of what we buy, but we also need to be conscious of what we dispose of so that we can reduce the amount of PFAs in our environment.

One of the ways that PFAs may make their way into our food system is via soil contamination. Once in the soil, PFAs can be uptaken by the plants that we eat or that we feed to livestock. Soils are often contaminated by leachate or airborne particles, but it is also possible for contamination to stem from the application of biosolids. Not all compost is created equal, and those that incorporate sewage sludge are particularly susceptible to contamination.

If you participate in our community composting program, you may already be familiar with the items that we do and don’t accept for composting, but you may not be aware of the reasoning behind it all. Concerns about PFAs contamination have played a role in our decisions about what sorts of materials we will accept, as we do not want to risk introducing any harmful substances into the compost that we use to grow food for our community. For example, we do not accept tea bags, because they often contain PFAs and/or plastic material. We also place restrictions on the types of compostable serving ware that we will accept, because as composting has become more popular, unethical companies have jumped on the bandwagon of producing “compostable” products that contain PFAs and other harmful substances. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good companies making legitimate bioplastic and fiber products, but there are just as many companies out there trying to greenwash people and that’s not cool! To ensure that we aren’t contaminating our compost, we tell our program participants that we only accept BPI certified compostable serving ware.

If you’re interested in learning more about our community composting program click here!

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