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U.S., Europe follow different routes toward same goal of sustainability

The regulatory landscapes of Europe and the U.S. for the packaging of food and beverages reveal major differences. European legislation tends to go much further in its aim to reduce packaging's impact on the environment and human health that are implicit in the risks of disposal and recycling at the "end of life" of packaging. Here we review the legislation on both sides of the Atlantic and the packaging issues all producers of products should consider.


The sustainability of packaging has been an increasingly pressing issue among consumers since the 1960s, and a multitude of regional and international regulations and guidelines are now in place. Labels tell consumers about the virtues of products, and many consumers favor those products that demonstrate a commitment to environmental protection. Unfortunately, this has led to misleading labeling practices, making claims of illusory environmental benefits to gain consumer acceptance, also known as "greenwashing," which recent regulations seek to curtail.


Along with improvements to products and a growing list of restricted chemicals, producers are gradually being held responsible for reducing their environmental impact as a more holistic approach to the lifecycle of products and packaging takes hold. However, marked differences exist in the regulatory landscapes of Europe and the U.S., with the European Union (EU) generally imposing more stringent regulations than those in the U.S.


In U.S., the regulations are listed under 21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR 175-177), as well as requirements of the Food Contact Notification (FCN) program, also known as Prop 65, which defines limits for lead and cadmium.


EU rules have REACH

In Europe, new regulations such as the REACH directive control the use of chemicals in products and packaging generally, and impose stringent limits to specific high-risk chemicals, particularly heavy metals, such as lead, hexavalent chromium, mercury and cadmium. As a complement to the chemicals restricted by REACH, EN 13427 defines the requirements for conformity with the packaging waste directive 1994/62/EC and discourages the use of heavy metals that may end up as residues in the recycling process.


The legislation also demands a minimization of packaging, to reduce the amount of waste it produces in addition to the extra energy consumed in both making the packaging and because the products are more bulky to transport and store. These regulations also insist the materials used are capable of being recycled, incinerated with energy recovery or are biodegradable.


The European concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR) imposes a levy on producers to finance the recycling or disposal of their packaging, which in turn applies direct economic pressures towards optimizing the disposal costs of packaging.


For infant products, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Commission, with EU 10/2011, impose a complete ban of bisphenol-A (BPA), although in the U.S. this had a minimal impact since they are already generally banned at state level.


Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastics and after findings that they can cause birth defects and reproductive malfunctions in humans, phthalates such as DEHP and DBP are currently banned by the EU and in California for children's products. Internationally, a complete ban of BPA and phthalates in food-contact packaging is also steadily being imposed by ISO regulations.


To reckon fairly whether a product is friendly to the environment throughout its lifetime requires balancing a complex set of factors that include the materials, energy and water consumed and waste produced during its manufacture, transportation, storage and retailing, use or consumption, maintenance and eventual disposal.


LCAs may be harmonized

It would be unrealistic to disregard packaging from the calculation, or the benefits of using recycled materials where possible. Such a calculation is known as a life-cycle analysis (LCA). The French government is presently experimenting with environmental labels presenting consumers with the results of an LCA. If this proves sucessful, it is likely to be rolled out across the EU with harmonized consumer labeling regulations.


For example, it would be absurd to reduce the energy used at one stage of the manufacturing process at the expense of an enormous increase in energy or water consumption at another stage, or the addition of a toxic ingredient whose disposal requires a large amount of energy or presents unacceptable risks to public or the environment in toxic effluent.


Paradoxically, when it comes to food and beverages, while environmental regulations encourage using recycled materials whenever possible, safety regulations such as 2002/72/EC prohibit recycled packaging in contact with food, mainly plastics. This is due to the risks of toxic traces from a previous life of the material that may be unavoidably admixed during the recycling process and that could migrate to the food. One example of a solution to this problem is to use layers of plastic, where virgin plastic is used for the inner layer that is in contact with food, whereas the outer layer comprises recycled plastic.


The testing and assessment of food and beverage packaging for sustainability involves chemical analysis of the materials used and an evaluation of alternative materials and designs so that they conform to applicable regulations and to circumvent any issues in future legislation.


As an example of a voluntary scheme aimed at countering greenwashing while providing producers with a justifiable ecological claim, SGS introduced a product mark program in January 2012 that informs consumers on product labels of validated environmental claims with a Product Carbon Footprint program. The scheme introduces three levels of progressive environmental achievement for a product, based on an initial assessment of the carbon footprint of a product, followed by verified reductions to the footprint.


To check whether your food and beverage packaging conforms to the regulations in your target market, you should observe what your competitors are doing in this respect, and get involved in industry associations. You can start by reading the safety data sheets from your materials suppliers or have materials tested by an ISO 17025 accredited laboratory and employ an independent adviser, such as SGS.


Jean-Baptiste Molet is the Ecodesign Department manager for SGS, a leading testing and certification company with more than 1,350 offices and labs worldwide. For more information, visit www.sgs.com.

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