New EDF tool reveals toxic chemicals in common food packaging

Web tool breaks down packaging types, materials and toxins

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EDF's web tool looks at the various types of food packs and then into the materials used and finally at the toxins in those materials Image: EDF website
EDF's web tool looks at the various types of food packs and then into the materials used and finally at the toxins in those materials Image: EDF website

New research from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) confirms that hundreds of toxic chemicals are used in the making of food packaging. Toxic chemicals come in direct contact with our food through everyday packaging materials, increasing health risks for consumers and reputational and financial risk for major brands.

EDF analyzed where toxic chemicals are used today by companies and which ones are used most often. It found that over 80% of the chemicals that are most toxic to human health and the environment are used in packaging materials like paperboard, plastics and inks.

Here’s why this matters: Toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – known as PFAS chemicals have been found in the blood of nearly every person in the U.S. As scientists look to understand exposures, food packaging is emerging as a potential source. All of this exposure is impacting our planet and human health. Many companies are unaware of the chemicals in food packaging.

For companies, it’s a growing business risk: Earlier this year, Burger King was among companies being sued for the presence of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in their fast-food packaging. This risk is only going to increase as we see more regulations at the state level against the use of chemicals in products, including in places like Washington, announced this week. Retailers who wait for more stringent food packaging regulations to be enacted will have more work down the line playing catch up.

Where do we go from here? EDF turned the analysis into an easy-to-use web-based tool to help companies make environmentally sustainable and safer purchasing decisions. Companies can click on common food containers, like a pizza box, and see what materials it’s made out of and what chemicals those materials contain. With this data at their fingertips, companies can more easily identify hotspots and work with suppliers to create safe, circular and more environmentally sustainable packaging. 

Toxic chemicals are used in the making of common food packaging materials. These toxic chemicals can then migrate into food, and many companies aren’t aware that their packaging contains harmful chemicals or what is required to make a proactive pivot toward safer food packaging. This tool is designed to help companies get started on working with their suppliers to identify which toxic chemicals exist in the food packaging they produce and how they got there. Information provided on this website builds upon the work of the SUM Decelerator, creator of the Understanding Packaging (UP) Scorecard and the Food Chemicals of Concern (FCOC) List. EDF is a member of the SUM Decelerator.

EDF web tool
The EDF web tool goes from pack type to material to the toxins contained
Image EDF website

The FCOC List, developed to identify chemicals of concern present in foodware and packaging materials, is grouped into three tiers. Tier 1 presents a shortlist of priority chemicals of concern to avoid, based on broad stakeholder agreement, because the potential health impacts from their migration into food raises serious concerns, and Tiers 2 and 3 present more extensive sets of toxic chemicals.

In collaboration with an independent consultant, EDF conducted further research, including surveying packaging industry professionals, to refine the understanding of the current usage of chemicals on the FCOC List in the production of specific food packaging materials and food containers. The information on this site incorporates the new data on the chemicals of concern that are confirmed to be used in today’s manufacturing of common food contact materials.

The food containers featured on the website are commonly encountered foodware and grocery items. Visitors to the site can see which chemicals of concern are intentionally used in different food containers and food contact materials (or in their production). Additional information about the Tier 1 chemicals, including their hazards and where they are found, is available to help companies get started.

Note: The above content is based on an EDF press release and additional materials including illustrations from the EDF website. It was edited by Naresh Khanna

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