How to avoid chemicals in food packaging
What do a can of organic tomatoes, a bag of potato chips and a box of oat milk have in common? They are all packaged in materials that contain chemical substances, which can migrate into the food and beverages inside.
Food packaging is a veritable minefield. There are many different types of packaging: metal, paper, glass, various forms of plastic-and a range of other multi-material packaging. This includes the metal top of glass beer bottles with plastic (foamed polyethylene or plastisol) sealant, aluminum carbonated beverage cans lined with plastic coating, or Tetra Pak milk cartons made of cardboard, aluminum and polyethylene.
EU rules stipulate that no "food contact material" should release into food or beverages chemical substances that may harm our health. Unfortunately, these rules are not as robust as they should be. For example, disposable plastics spread phthalates into our food through contact and heating, which is not good news.
63 hazardous chemicals
Scientists have discovered that many of the 8,000 chemicals used in Europe to make packaging have not undergone thorough toxicity testing. For plastic packaging, you can add chemicals to make it more flexible, enhance its heat resistance and sunlight resistance, or add color-most of which can easily penetrate into the food it comes into contact with. The European Zero Waste Policy Brief on "Safe Food Contact Materials" states that 68 of the chemicals that can be added to plastics are harmful to our environment and 63 are harmful to our health.
You may be surprised that single-use plastic is not the only culprit. Food cans are painted with lacquer and may contain epoxy resin to prevent oxidation. Paper and cardboard can be bleached with chemicals. The ink printed on cardboard may contain permeable chemicals.
The good news is that the European Union is about to revise its current "food contact materials" rules, and the entire coalition of NGOs, including Zero Waste Europe, is working hard to protect us from chemicals infiltrating our food.
Four ways to prevent chemicals from penetrating into food
At the same time, here are four ways to limit your exposure to chemicals in food packaging and take positive action.
Individual steps you can take to limit your exposure:
You guessed it: the zero waste shop! Bring your own cloth bags and glass containers and refill them in unpackaged stores. Preference is given to using materials such as glass, ceramics, and stainless steel to store food and beverages. Don't use the microwave to heat the food in the plastic container-transfer it to the porcelain plate first. Avoid small packages of anything, such as ketchup pouches and mini butter packets.
What to do if you want to raise a concern:
Email your favorite brands and tell them you want them to stop using hazardous chemicals in food packaging. Email your decision makers (ministers, parliamentarians and members of the European Parliament) and ask them to ensure that the food packaging in your store is safe!
Any measures we take to prevent chemicals from penetrating into food through packaging are also measures that are beneficial to the planet. In terms of plastics alone, Europeans generate 30 kilograms of plastic packaging waste on average every year. One-third of them end up in landfills, another third are incinerated, and the last third are collected for “recycling”, usually exported outside Europe, causing plastic pollution problems in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia.
Removal of chemicals in food contact materials is vital to our health and environmental health. This is why it is such an important piece of legislation in the European Green Agreement. With the upcoming food contact material legislation review opportunity, we have the opportunity to make Europe take a step towards a truly non-toxic circular economy-please do not use more hazardous chemicals in our food packaging!
Do you want to know more?
Read the latest newsletter from Zero Waste Europe on food contact materials.
Read the European Zero Waste Declaration on Plastics, Packaging and Human Health.
Read the zero waste European feedback on farm-to-table strategy.
Check out the food packaging and human health infographics at the Food Packaging Forum.
As the world is still fighting COVID-19, we will continue to work for a waste-free future and build systems that are effective for humans and the planet. This article is the third chapter of our brand new series. It tells how a fair food system can help create a zero waste and more sustainable future for all!
Please also read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.
About the latest post
How to avoid chemicals in food packaging-29/06/2020 Chemical recycling does not solve the plastic crisis-17/10/2019 Period: It's time to abandon disposable products-08/03/2019