EDF Health

Selected tag(s): Circular economy

Toxic chemicals can enter food through packaging. We made a list.

Boma Brown-West, Senior Manager, Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director, and Michelle Harvey, Consultant.

This is the second in a series evaluating the challenges in single-use food packaging waste.

See our list of key chemicals of concern in food packaging.

In the late 1980s, the Council of Northeast Governors (CONEG) was concerned that heavy metals in packaging would accumulate in recycled materials to levels that presented serious health concerns. The organization drafted model legislation that prohibited the intentional addition of mercury, lead, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium to any component of packaging, including inks. It also set a 100 parts-per-million limit on the total amount of these four heavy metals. To ensure compliance, companies making packaging materials had to provide certificates of compliance to downstream purchasers and report compliance to the states.

CONEG also established the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse to maintain the model legislation, coordinate implementation of state legislation, and serve as a resource for companies seeking compliance information. The Council’s hypothesis: protecting virgin material from contamination will improve the recyclability of post-consumer materials and protect public health.

Over the years, 19 states have adopted a variation of the model legislation.  In 2018, the State of Washington took an unprecedented step of expanding its version of the legislation from heavy metals to include per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are bioaccumulating, persistent chemicals and are associated with an array of health problems including endocrine disruption and children’s developmental harm. The State was concerned that paper and cardboard food packaging treated with these chemicals may be contaminating composting and paper recycling processes post-consumer.

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A gap remains in the circular economy conversation: Toxic chemicals in packaging

Boma Brown-West, Senior Manager, Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director, and Michelle Harvey, Consultant.

This is the first blog in a series evaluating the challenges associated with single-use food packaging waste.

This week Walmart joined a growing number of companies that are trying to advance the circular economy for packaging. Like previous commitments from NestleCoca-Cola and McDonald’s, Walmart is stepping up its efforts to use more recyclable packaging, incorporate more recycled content, and accelerate development of collection and recycling infrastructures. EDF has a long history fighting for greater and smarter plastics recycling, so we are pleased to see more companies working to eliminate plastic packaging waste from our environment. However, something is often missing from their statements: commitments for safer packaging free of toxic chemicals.

What defines safer packaging?

There are many facets to sustainable packaging: recyclability, reusability, lower material and energy inputs, and the avoidance of toxic chemicals.  A significant amount of virgin plastic used in packaging currently contains toxic chemical additives such as ortho-phthalates or contaminants such as heavy metals. These chemicals have been linked to diseases and health disorders, such as reproductive problems and impaired brain development. When tainted plastic packaging is reused or recycled, these toxic chemicals persist and may accumulate to worrisome levels until the packaging is retired, posing long-term threats to our health.

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