How much do we know about food contact chemicals used in packaging and what is being done to alleviate potential risks?
This time last year a new database containing thousands of food contact chemicals was launched. Some of them, like bisphenols, phthalates and PFAS (per and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances), are well studied, but there were also hundreds for which very little is known about their use and possible migration into food.
Such data are “critical for determining human heath risks” the scientists from Switzerland-based non-profit the Food Packaging Forum (FPF) noted. There was talk of “potential harm” and the gaps in understanding their impacts.
Research the forum is about to publish alongside experts in the US shows how “reusing and recycling plastics can also lead to unintended negative impacts, because hazardous chemicals, like endocrine disrupters and carcinogens, can be released during reuse and accumulate during recycling”. It adds to growing concerns about the cocktail of chemicals in packaging that neither consumers nor food manufacturers appear to know much about.
“There are so few people who understand this issue,” explains FPF managing director Jane Muncke. “People get climate now and I guess they get biodiversity but chemicals is a whole different beast. Just saying the word scares people off.”
Food companies certainly remain reticent to talk about possible issues in their packaging supply chains. Just Food approached a number of major manufacturers but only two – Nestlé and General Mills – offered any comment on the topic (they follow the rules to ensure food is safe).
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Industry body FoodDrinkEurope (FDE) says its members “comply with all EU regulations on the safety of food contact materials, using only food contact materials that have been assessed as safe to use”.
But regulation requires certainty and there is little of that when it comes to chemicals. Revisions to some relevant regulations (which date back decades) are underway across the world but these are complex and NGOs are concerned by both delays and their scope. So should food companies be worried?
In a word: yes. A major scare story about chemicals is the last thing they need, not least because it could also damage their attempts to integrate more recycled content into their plastic packaging. Indeed, phrases such as ‘toxic recycling’ are increasingly being used by NGOs as attention turns to the possibility that recycling plastics could actually bring more chemical risks.
In 2021, for example, the US Environment Protection Agency warned that “the circular nature of the recycling economy may have the potential to introduce additional chemicals into products”. In Europe there are similar concerns that policymakers are driving circularity for packaging without a framework for the chemicals and additives.
Chemical safety is “often ignored” in solutions to reuse or recycle plastic, or to switch to other materials, noted 33 scientists in a ‘consensus statement’ in the journal Environmental Health in 2021. “Recycling processes may increase the levels of chemicals found in, and therefore migrating from, food packaging,” said co-author Olwenn Martin from Brunel University London. “This aspect needs to be considered at the design stage for solutions to be truly sustainable.”
Start to dig, as scientists increasingly are, and solutions designed to reduce the impact of packaging start to come unstuck when chemicals are considered. “In discussions of the circular economy it’s often forgotten that it only truly works as intended when we weed out the toxics first,” Heather Leslie, an ecotoxicologist who previously worked at the Institute for Environmental Studies at University Amsterdam said last year.
This left environmental NGOs in a predicament: many were wary of wading into this debate too quickly, for fear it could derail momentum around reduction, re-use and recycling of plastic packaging. But food companies, packaging firms and recyclers should know that the gloves are now off.
In September, Zero Waste Europe together with the Health and Environment Alliance, CHEM Trust and ClientEarth launched a new campaign. “Harmful chemicals in recycled food contact materials can put the circular economy and our health at risk,” they tweeted, with an infographic entitled ‘Misconceptions about food contact materials’. Their use of the phrase “toxic recycling” was deliberately emotive.
In Europe, some 8,000 chemicals can be used in food packaging and other food contact materials (FCMs). Chemicals are added to packaging to give it certain properties like durability and stiffness but some migrate into the food. “We’re constantly demanding more from our food packaging, more durability, more functionality and more sustainability and this means more complex manufacturing processes,” FPF’s Muncke wrote recently.
A technical report dedicated to the topic of chemicals in plastic, published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) last month, highlighted the “compelling scientific evidence” that shows chemicals of concern in a range of sectors and product value chains, including food contact materials like packaging. Globally, more than 13,000 chemicals are associated with plastics and plastic production across a wide range of applications, of which over 3,200 monomers, additives, processing aids and non-intentionally added substances are of potential concern due to their hazardous properties, the authors wrote.
“Without the implementation of globally-coordinated measures, the increasing production of plastics and associated chemicals will result in increasing pollution levels and associated environmental, social, and economic costs,” they warned.
UNEP called on manufacturers to “fully disclose” the identity and quantity of all chemicals used and found in plastic products, product use patterns, and release of chemicals. This would allow regulatory authorities to better assess exposure and risk to derive science-based policy decisions and for recyclers to identify hazardous chemicals in plastic waste.
Businesses and consumers could also make “informed decisions”. That isn’t easy but it won’t stop the pressure to make it happen. “There are currently no ingredient lists publicly available [and, as far as I can see,] no intentions to create openness,” notes Leslie. “Even designers and manufacturers have difficulty accessing the information about what chemicals are in the plastics they procure to make their products.”
Greenpeace and war
Greenpeace USA has just called for “transparency about chemicals in plastics”. While the 144 pages of the UNEP report are heavy and difficult to digest, the environmental campaign group’s 22-page effort is a short and sour summary that’s designed (as always) to shock. Greenpeace claims that plastics are “inherently incompatible with a circular economy” because “[…] when plastics are recycled, they contain a toxic cocktail of chemicals that makes them unfit for food-grade and other consumer uses”.
The report was deliberately timed to tee up the issue as countries gather in Paris this week for a second round of talks to deliver a global plastics treaty. The idea that recycled plastics present a health risk reinforces the argument that the treaty needs to cap production of virgin plastics. Petrochemical companies and packaging converters are of course lobbying against any such attempt.
Such a cap remains the top priority for both health and environmental campaigners, and there is support from some food businesses too. Chemicals has emerged as a hot topic for the treaty, notes Christina Dixon from the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international NGO that has offices in the UK and the US. “There are quite a lot of member states and other stakeholders who are seeing the chemicals piece as really critical to the success of the treaty,” Dixon explains.
“There’s been this big focus on circularity, but if we have circularity [and] it’s not safe we’re just creating a whole set of other problems for ourselves.”
One of the 12 ‘core obligations’ in the treaty options paper being discussed in France is the “banning, phasing out and/or reducing the production, consumption and use of chemicals and polymers of concern”. This could also “contribute to enhancing the recyclability of plastics and thereby to widening the scope of the plastic circular economy”.
Indeed, the complex mix of polymers used for plastic packaging is only one headache; another is deciphering what was in there; and then there is the chemicals question. This brings issues for even readily-recycled polymers, as our sister title Just Drinks reported recently. Recyclers call for more closed loop systems, whereby drinks bottles are recycled back into drinks bottles and food trays back into trays. There is even talk of the need to colour-code food and non-food packaging.
Major food brands have struggled to reach double figures for recycled content in plastic packaging but there are considerable tonnages already in play, which worries the likes of Muncke. When it comes to chemicals “we have huge concerns with recycled plastics and huge concerns with virgin plastics”, she says. “Our other concern is this narrative around chemical recycling.”
The major food brands are holding out for chemical recycling to provide the silver bullet to recycling plastic, in particular polymers like polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) that food brands rely on heavily but are tricky to recycle back into food-grade materials. Tesco and Kraft Heinz have a pilot going in the UK involving Beanz snap-pots while in France, General Mills and Sodiaal’s yogurt brand Yoplait has introduced “the first” yogurt pots produced with food-compliant chemically recycled polystyrene.
These are small, early pilots but there is plenty of pent-up demand. A paper produced by the Consumer Goods Forum’s plastic waste coalition of action (PWCoA) estimated the aggregated annual volume demand from just 22 member companies for “reasonably priced” chemically recycled PP and PE to be 780,000 tonnes – of which 680,000 tonnes is food grade.
Whether it’s possible to reach such scale and guarantee food safety is moot. Recyclers and tech companies say it certainly is but questions abound. Research published in May by Brunel University London, University College London and Qatar University, and involving FPF, looked at polyethylene (PE) – the most-used plastic packaging.
The team identified 377 food contact chemicals in PE packaging, such as the bisphenol A and phthalates that can disrupt hormones and lead to health risks. Some 211 of the 377 seep into food “at least once during the plastic’s life cycle” and only a quarter of those are authorised by EU regulation, a third of which are above the safe limit.
The number of non-authorised chemicals was “unexpectedly high,” according to Brunel’s Eleni Iacovidou. “We found a lack of sufficient evidence to show PE can be safely recycled into new food-grade packaging,” she adds.
The study does not look at food contact approved plastics but the authors say it was designed to highlight that the implications of using and recycling polyethylene from a chemical perspective have been insufficiently explored. “Monitoring the quality of plastic food contact materials across the entire value chain is a mandatory and important prerequisite to achieving a sustainable and safe plastics economy,” says Iacovidou.
Some of those that are invested in delivering food grade recycled plastics for hard-to-recycle polymers, like PP and PE, feel academics are trying to burst their bubble. Debates on studies have been heated but there is little sign of the pressure easing. Indeed, earlier today (1 June 1) at the treaty talks in France, a new plastic health council was announced.
There is also a scientists’ coalition for an effective plastics treaty which is pushing for the treaty to address chemicals and polymers of concern. The group says a global inventory of plastic chemicals, polymers and materials is needed to reduce plastic pollution and it wants regulators to phase out groups of chemicals of concern; “positive lists” of chemicals are needed too. All this will help deliver a “non-toxic plastic economy”.
But it isn’t just plastic that presents a problem. Alternative materials are part of the treaty discussions too. “We need to know what the alternatives are and if they are better or worse,” says Alexandra Harrington from the UK’s Lancaster University, who is chair of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law taskforce on plastic pollution.
Paper has become the go-to substitute for plastic for food companies. Politicians also thinks it’s wonderful, says Dorota Napierska, policy officer at Zero Waste Europe. “They’re in love with paper,” she explains, but they’re “not aware how problematic it is from a chemical point of view”.
Paper packaging often needs liners and coatings to protect it from grease, for example. PFAS are among the chemicals used. They are considered ‘forever chemicals’ because of their ability to accumulate permanently in the environment and have been found in high quantities in rigid fibre-based and compostable packaging.
This kind of packaging is often perceived as ‘greener’ and by default ‘safer’ but from a toxicological perspective biodegradable and bio-based packaging may not any better than conventional plastics, say experts. The rules on food contact materials also don’t cope with paper very well at all, suggests Lizzie Smith from Anthesis, a global consultancy. The European Commission has said current legislation is “largely incompatible with current trends in the switch […] to more novel or natural, sustainable alternatives” to plastic.
Research by the University of Toronto in Canada revealed the presence of PFAS in compostable packaging. With single-use plastic options being banned or phased out the scientists warned of making “regrettable” substitutions. Swedish NGO the ChemTrust this week claimed that the societal costs of PFAS amount to €16trn ($17trn) per year.
Fidra, an environmental charity based in Scotland, has also found high levels of the potentially toxic chemicals in supermarket packaging as well as pizza boxes, takeaway bags and food boxes. Sometimes the chemicals are not even needed, explains senior project manager Clare Cavers, and there are alternatives available too. “Unseen and stealthy, chemicals from our everyday lives are building up around us, to toxic levels,” she explains. “The frivolous use of PFAS needs to be phased out in packaging.”
Regulators have begun to do just that. Denmark has banned PFAS from all paper-and-board food packaging, as have several US states, for example. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is currently consulting on proposed restrictions of PFAS, the first of which is on their use manufacture, use, and placement on the market of PFAS as substances on their own. The second restriction addresses concentration limits for PFAS as a constituent in another substance or contained in mixtures or articles.
The proposed restrictions are “extremely broad” focusing on the whole group of PFAS, explains Nicola Smith, partner and specialist in food and drink regulation at law firm Squire Patton Boggs.
In April 2023, ECHA also published a scientific opinion re-evaluating the risks to public health related to the presence of bisphenol A (BPA) in foodstuffs. The EU has recently introduced a new recycled plastic food contact materials regulation (which will apply to packaging which contains recycled plastic). “We are already seeing queries from clients on this,” says Smith.
In July, McKinsey, a consultancy, warned companies that the net is closing in on chemicals used in packaging, and urged a more “proactive approach” was needed as regulation of chemicals changes bringing uncertainty and risks.
FDE wants to see the food contact materials regulatory framework divided into three distinct regulations: food contact substances; final articles and migration testing; and recycled food contact materials.
NGOs wonder if the new restrictions and rules will be enough to allay the concerns raised in a growing bank of research.
Some brands have already been spooked enough into acting. Restaurant Brands International (which owns Burger King) and Yum (which owns KFC and Pizza Hut) are among the companies to have committed to remove PFAS from packaging by 2025 (Yum is also removing phthalates and BPA), according to Sigwatch, which tracks NGO activity.
Earlier this year, US food manufacturer Conagra Brands committed to eliminating PFAS in their Act II popcorn. This followed a report that showed the chemicals in microwave popcorn products being made in the US and exported to Indonesia by companies including Conagra, the American Popcorn Company, Ramsey Popcorn and Preferred Popcorn.
Conagra joins a growing list of companies, including Ahold Delhaize, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods Market, and others that have committed to eliminating PFAS from their food packaging.
“Governments urgently need to address this issue at the source by prohibiting the production, sale, and use of PFAS as a class, particularly for non-essential uses,” says Jitka Straková, global researcher with IPEN, which conducted the popcorn study.
Expect the pressure from campaigners, scientists and regulators to increase. But there is also the prospect of litigation. Conagra defeated two proposed class suits alleging it misleadingly portrays its Orville Redenbacher’s and Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP microwave popcorn as made with “natural” and “real” ingredients when the popcorn has PFAS that’s seeped in from the bags.
That was a win for the food industry but as Paul Benson from law firm Michael Best & Friedrich noted recently: “[…] few expect the ever-increasing trend of PFAS lawsuits to end anytime soon”. Indeed, what began as litigation against the chemical companies that created PFAS, has now “morphed” into cases against downstream manufacturers which incorporate PFAS into their products and their product’s packaging, he added.
Chemicals used in packaging have been described as a “ticking timebomb”. Greenpeace has certainly thrown a “nuke” with its latest report, as one packaging industry title put it this week. But the fire is coming from all sides and food companies need to recognise that none of it is friendly.