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Consumer tests reveal toxic chemicals in non-plastic disposable tableware, EU targets “overdue” reform

June 6, 2021
Food & Drink

New testing by consumer organizations in Italy, Denmark, Spain and France has found toxic chemicals in single-use tableware made of popular non-plastic alternatives, such as disposable plant fiber bowls, paper straws or palm leaf plates.

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and its member organizations are urging the EU to ensure single-use plastic alternatives are safe and do not mislead consumers after several products were found to market unsubstantiated green claims.

The EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive will take effect on July 3, banning popular throwaway plastic items like straws, cutlery, plates and beverage cups and containers made of EPS.

“As food businesses increasingly switch to non-plastic alternatives, Member States urgently need to step up their official control activities to prevent consumer exposure to harmful chemicals, such as those found by our members,” Pelle Moos, BEUC’s chemicals expert, tells PackagingInsights.

“Doing so will also help consumers trust that the alternatives are safe, thus contributing to continued public support for the fight to end the plastic pollution crisis.”

EU slow on plant-based legislation
In total, over half of the sampled products contained one or more unwanted chemicals above recommended levels (53 percent), including some suspected to cause cancer. A further 21 percent contained toxic chemicals close to recommended levels.

With many single-use plastic items about to be banned in the EU, manufacturers and consumers are increasingly turning to alternatives made of bamboo, paper or palm leaves.

Unlike plastics, the safety of these materials is currently unregulated in the EU, as no specific rules exist.

“After much foot-dragging, the European Commission in May 2020 announced a reform of EU food packaging legislation,” says Moos.

“The reform aims to ensure food safety and public health while supporting the use of environmentally-friendly materials.”

“We welcome this move as a long-overdue opportunity to build a comprehensive, future proof and enforceable EU food packaging system that fully protects consumers against harmful chemicals and promotes sustainable packaging alternatives, including the use of safe, toxic-free plant-based materials.”

Safe alternatives available
The test results suggest manufacturers can source plant-based materials without harmful chemicals. For example, no pesticide residues were found in 72 percent of the analyzed palm leaf and molded fiber products and no harmful chemicals were found in 27 percent of the tested paper straws.

“These findings highlight that strict rules are needed, in particular with respect to imports, to ensure manufacturers only source materials where the presence of toxic chemicals is kept as low as technically achievable,” explains Moos.

He adds that BEUC does not have an overview of what alternatives are available on the market. However, previous tests by its members on other food packaging materials mostly confirm toxic chemicals are present in some tested products but not all, suggesting alternatives are available.

For example, US-based Twin Rivers Paper Company recently expanded its line of fluorochemical-free and PFAS-free grease-resistant food packaging, branded EcoBarrier.

Similarly, World Centric launched Leaf+, a plant-based, fully compostable alternative to fluorinated chemicals for disposable fiber tableware.

Moos also expects toxic chemicals will be of less concern in metal packaging solutions, although BEUC members have not tested them.

Misleading “green” claims
The findings also indicate the alleged green credentials of popular plastic alternatives may mislead consumers. Several sampled products claiming to be “compostable” or “biodegradable” were found to contain “forever chemicals.”

“Forever chemicals” may not fully degrade in nature for hundreds of years, migrating into the environment and accumulating in soil, water and living organisms.

“The fact that many plastic alternatives are loaded with ‘forever chemicals’ sadly shows that one persistent pollutant is being replaced with another,” comments Monique Goyens, BEUC’s director general.

“[Our results] prove current EU food packaging rules fail consumers. It is high time the EU gets its act together and comes up with strict food packaging rules that both protect consumers and the environment.”

“Green labels such as ‘natural,’ ‘biodegradable,’ or ‘compostable’ have no place on single-use dinnerware that contain persistent chemicals. Such bogus claims create confusion among consumers and make it difficult for them to identify the plates, straws or bowls that are more environmentally friendly than others.”

Test details
The survey sampled:

  • Fifty-seven items, such as disposable bowls made from straw or bagasse (i.e., fibers from sugarcane stalks), paper straws, and palm leaf tableware.
  • Three categories of items: 23 bowls and plates made from molded natural fibers, mainly bagasse; 18 paper straws; and 16 palm leaf bowls and plates.
  • Certain groups of chemicals and pesticides:
  • Fluorinated compounds (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in nature. PFAS are widely used to make food packaging and other consumer products water-, grease- and/or stain-resistant. PFAS are linked to cancers, IQ loss, and other severe health effects.
  • Chloropropanols may emerge during the manufacture of paper packaging and have cancer-causing properties.
  • Pesticides may be present in plant-based food contact items either as residues of the pesticides used to grow sugarcane, palm trees and other natural materials or from processing the raw material. Exposure to certain pesticides is linked to cancers, congenital disabilities and endocrine disruption.

A similar report in 2020 by The Mind the Store campaign and Toxic-Free Future warned nearly half of all take-out food packaging tested across major US food chains contains potentially toxic chemicals.

By Joshua Poole


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