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Food Packaging Safety: A Critical Review of Materials

Food Packaging Safety: A Critical Review of Materials
FoodPrint's critical review of food packaging uncovers problems and proposes actionable solutions.

A report on food packaging centers on an assessment of different materials. Spoiler alert: Plastics do not fare well, but neither do metal and paper.

First came the notion of the Beer Print, when Packaging Digest reported on Molson Coors’ sustainability efforts that centered around that idea.

“Beer Print is the notion that every time a beer is lifted up, there’s an imprint left behind,” explained Kim Marotta, global senior director of corporate responsibility. “We want to make sure it’s a positive one on our communities and environment.” (see Molson Coors shrinks plastic packaging’s Beer Print, published December 2019)

My interest was piqued when I saw a parallel approach to that at the FoodPrint website, which published a paper, The FoodPrint of Food Packaging.  It’s based on a March 2019 report, Safer Materials in Food Packaging, by Safer Made. Commissioned by Forsythia Foundation which “promotes healthier people and environments by reducing harmful chemicals in our lives,” Safer Made’s 49-page study discusses the needs for innovation in food packaging and showcases innovative companies and potential solutions to the sector’s health and environmental challenges.

FoodPrint’s document is comprehensive 30-page PDF that cites 86 footnoted sources for the data and information. Among other things, the report shows how harmful chemicals in single-use plastics and other wasteful packaging leach into food. For example, it found that…

• Styrofoam use is on the decline due to environmental concerns, but its precursor, polystyrene, remains widely used despite also leaching petroleum-based chemicals into food.

• [Paper] fiber food packaging like [corrugated] is often coated with plastic and additives such as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) that make it impossible to recycle and are prone to food contamination.

In both Safer Made and FoodPrint’s reports, fault is found with all materials related so specific usages with the exception of glass packaging, which essentially emerges clear of any adverse criticism.

A FoodPrint contact informed me that “the report offers a clear path forward, sharing actionable steps consumers can take and uplifting successful initiatives to develop sustainable and reusable alternatives to traditional plastics.”

It’s beneficial to hear from diverse voices in the markets Packaging Digest covers, so I reached out to Jerusha Klemperer, director, for additional information.

The report's fundamental considerations that were used to assess different food packaging materials.

Briefly describe what FoodPrint is and does.

Klemperer: Based in New York City, FoodPrint is a website that helps people understand how to eat in a way that does less harm to the environment, animals, and people. We have information on shopping, cooking and eating more sustainably as well as deep-dive information on the impacts of our industrial food system.

When and why was the report conducted?

Klemperer: We worked on this report because we felt that food packaging is an important part of the food system that a lot of consumers don't think much about. People are thinking a lot lately about things like pesticides that are used to grow the food itself, but what about the packaging the food comes in? There are environmental and health problems that could be addressed with innovations in food packaging and supported by changes in consumer behavior as well. For example, food packaging innovations include an endlessly recycled plastic, polydiketoenamine, or PDK, designed by scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (see New plastic for food packaging is infinitely recyclable published July 2019). Researchers at Penn State have developed an inexpensive, compostable material they believe could replace the plastic barrier coatings that are problematic in packaging.

What do you see as the main problems with food packaging?

Klemperer: The environmental problems are around production, but also disposal.

For example, plastic is problematic because of all of the unsustainable petroleum production it relies on — plastic comes, in large part from petroleum, but also now increasingly from natural gas production. However, the problem is also because plastic never goes away and is filling our landfills, water ways and more with gluts of plastic.

And there are also health impacts from certain plastics, like polystyrene, which is used in many types of packaging including coffee cup lids, and which causes a range of health problems when it leaches into the food or drink it carries. The top chemicals for concern are bisphenols including bisphenol-A, Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and phthalates.

The report finds problems across three of the four main material types commonly used in food packaging.

Do you see instances where plastics is beneficial? For example, the coronavirus pandemic is underscoring the food safety benefits of single-use packaging.

Klemperer: Of course! There is a time and a place for plastic packaging, but I think we can all agree we are using way more than we need. We have prioritized convenience — and that's the key difference, between safety and convenience — to the point where we are drowning ourselves in unhealthy plastic.

What materials made out better than plastics, according to the study?

Klemperer: Cardboard/fiber can be better, but there are some additives, like PFAS, that can make them extremely problematic. Then we point out that some innovations that seem great might have problems as well, especially in the murky area of biodegradable plastics, for example.

Among other materials, metal packaging for instance is also singled out as potentially being problematic.

Klemperer: Metal is actually fine in terms of health as long as it is not lined with something, for example, as with metal beverage cans. I should point out that the use of the particlar material really depends on the exact nature of the metal, the use, if it's lined, etc.

What advice do you have for brands and for those involved in packaging development?

Klemperer: Innovation is happening, but more is needed! Customers are hungry for packaging that is safe for them and the environment.

Anything else to point out that’s important or not apparent?

Klemperer: While or report gives people lots of ideas for simple swaps they can make and items and chemicals to avoid, the onus shouldn't lie on consumers to make the right choices. We need new and safer packaging and companies have an opportunity and an obligation to step in and create products that are better both for human health and the environment.

The full 30-page report in PDF format is available to download.

Images: FoodPrint report

For related content from Packaging Digest, see Clean packaging: The next step in consumer transparency, published July 2018; and What ‘chemicals of concern’ are in your food packaging?, published June 2018.

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