Toxic chemicals can enter food through packaging. We made a list.

Tom Neltner, J.D. and Boma Brown-West with Maricel Maffini and Michelle Mauthe Harvey

This is the second in a series evaluating the challenges in single-use food packaging waste.

In the late 1980s, the Council of Northeast Governors (CONEG) was concerned that heavy metals in packaging would accumulate in recycled materials to levels that presented serious health concerns. The organization drafted model legislation that prohibited the intentional addition of mercury, lead, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium to any component of packaging, including inks. It also set a 100 parts-per-million limit on the total amount of these four heavy metals. To ensure compliance, companies making packaging materials had to provide certificates of compliance to downstream purchasers and report compliance to the states.

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Walmart steps up on recycling efforts – but a gap remains in the circular economy conversation

This is the first blog in a series evaluating the challenges associated with single-use food packaging waste.

This week Walmart joined a growing number of companies that are trying to advance the circular economy for packaging. Like previous commitments from NestleCoca-Cola and McDonald’s, Walmart is stepping up its efforts to use more recyclable packaging, incorporate more recycled content, and accelerate development of collection and recycling infrastructures. EDF has a long history fighting for greater and smarter plastics recycling, so we are pleased to see more companies working to eliminate plastic packaging waste from our environment. However, something is often missing from their statements: commitments for safer packaging free of toxic chemicals.

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An unlikely alliance just brought us one step closer to safer beauty products

In a rare move by two fierce competitors, Walmart and Target brought together stakeholders from across the U.S. beauty and personal care (BPC) industry in 2014 to drive safer, more sustainable products. This was bold considering that there was no consensus on the basic definition of product sustainability in an industry estimated at over $80 billion. After three years, a core group of eighteen organizations across the BPC value chain, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), released the first science-based scorecard of 32 key performance indicators (KPIs), marking the most sweeping market demand signal for safer and more sustainable beauty and personal care products yet.

Why does this matter?

Beauty and personal care consumers increasingly care about the health and environmental impacts of the products they buy. A vast majority of 87 percent of consumers globally prefer products with “no harsh chemicals or toxins.” Millennial women are also driving demand for more sustainable products. To address this gap, Forum for the Future worked together with The Sustainability Consortium to facilitate the three year mission to “shift the beauty and personal care product sector into a more sustainable, thriving and resilient industry that serves the needs of people and planet both now and in the future.”

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Trend spotted: Home Depot is the latest retailer to drop these harmful chemicals

Last week The Home Depot published an update to their Chemical Strategy that expands their commitments to now cover household cleaning chemical products. They are asking suppliers to remove and exclude nine chemicals from these products by 2022. This commitment builds on their strategy first published in October 2017, which targeted chemicals of concern in flooring, carpet, insulation, and paints. Adding cleaning products to that portfolio builds on The Home Depot’s commitment to tackle products that impact the quality of indoor air. This commitment is important considering we spend 80% of our time indoors and many of the chemicals we are exposed to inside are linked to the development of asthma, among other health issues.

The Home Depot’s updated strategy is a move in the right direction for cleaning products. While they previously highlighted environmentally preferred products through the Eco Options® certification program, this commitment will impact all cleaning products sold in stores and online. This means more consumers will be able to bring safer products into their homes.

Retailers are increasingly aligning to eliminate or reduce these 9 harmful chemicals

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What Nicholas Kristof missed about toxics in our bodies

As a consumer health expert, I was glued to Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times op-ed, “What poisons are in your body?” Kristof has covered the dangers of toxic chemicals for years and instituted lifestyle changes to limit exposure to chemicals that worry him most. Among his top concerns are endocrine disruptors – which alter hormones and are associated with lower sperm counts in men, for example. Despite his knowledge and intentional lifestyle changes, his recent blood test results still came back with high levels of a variety of chemicals. Wow.

Kristof invites readers to take a survey identifying the common products they have used in the last month. The survey results tell you what chemicals you have been exposed to through these products as well as the health hazards associated with each chemical. It’s important that Kristof continues to shine a light on the issues of hazardous chemicals in products we use every day and the lack of oversight on the safety of these chemicals.

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Food industry leaders just set new guidelines for use of specific chemicals in food packaging

By Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director at Environmental Defense Fund and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Last week, we spent two days at a Chemical Watch food packaging conference with manufacturers and suppliers trying to better understand the process for bringing innovative products to market. They learned what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other countries will demand and what challenges they need to anticipate. While regulatory aspects are complicated, the attendees often talked about the difficulties of navigating requirements from companies and reacting to consumer expectations about packaging chemicals.

These concerns were timely. On March 9, the Food Safety Alliance for Packaging (FSAP), a part of the Institute of Packaging Professionals, released “Food Packaging Product Stewardship Considerations,” a set of best practices. This marks the first public recognition by a sector of the packaging industry of the expectations and demands from food manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.

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New retailer ranking on safer chemicals reveals major gaps between leaders and laggards

On Monday, the Mind the Store campaign released their second annual review of retailer action on toxic chemicals: Who’s Minding the Store? – A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals. The report card evaluates 30 retailers across a variety of product sectors, including cosmetics, electronics, baby products, and grocery. How are retailers doing? Let’s take a closer look.

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Why businesses and state governments aren’t waiting for federal action on chemicals transparency

As a Trump Administration appointee tries to dismantle EPA’s credibility as a guardian of public health and the environment, other actors have been stepping up. We recently examined retailers leading the way on removing chemicals of concern from the marketplace – but there has also been significant activity from state governments and companies to increase transparency about the chemicals we are exposed to every day and to empower consumers to make informed decisions about their product purchases.

Regulatory steps in the right direction

Government activity has recently focused on cleaning products, for good reason as the contents of these products are typically the biggest mystery for consumers.

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No one-hit wonder: Walmart reinforces its commitment to safer chemicals

Walmart made two big moves last week to reinforce its commitment to leadership on safer chemicals. In 2013 Walmart sent a major demand signal for safer chemicals through the supply chain – issuing its Sustainable Chemistry Policy that covered 700 suppliers and over 90,000 cleaning, personal care, and cosmetics products on its shelves. The policy called for greater ingredient transparency and the reduction and elimination of chemicals harmful to human and environmental health, starting with eight prevalent chemicals of concern. Last week, Walmart released its latest results following up on these commitments and became the first retailer to participate in the Chemical Footprint Project annual survey (and the second major retailer to become a CFP signatory).

Walmart’s participation in the Chemical Footprint Project is a new indicator of its continued commitment to safer products

The Chemical Footprint Project is an initiative to benchmark how effectively companies are managing the chemicals in their products and supply chains. As I mentioned in a previous blog, it’s a way for investors and large purchasers to assess which firms are carrying heavy chemical risk and which ones are demonstrating competitive leadership in response to growing demand for safer products. So far, 24 companies, including Walmart, participate in this program – sending a clear signal to their suppliers, investors, and consumers that chemicals management is material to business success. Leaders identified in the CFP survey show that adopting and enforcing policies and measuring progress are key to reducing chemicals of concern.

[Tweet “Walmart just made two big moves to reinforce its commitment to leadership on safer chemicals”]

Progress on its ground-breaking policy

Also last week, Walmart quietly released its second annual Sustainable Chemistry Policy report, showing progress on its policy to eliminate priority chemicals. The chemicals of concern were drawn from 16 reputable regulatory and other authoritative lists – starting with eight High Priority Chemicals.

Table 1: Walmart’s High Priority Chemicals


A chemical inventory is the first step in meeting a commitment to reduce your chemical footprint

Before jumping into the results, let’s review why this public disclosure of results is important. If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it effectively. Walmart’s public reporting of quantitative data shows that it is serious about measuring its chemical footprint and being transparent about it. Walmart uses aggregate chemical inventory information across and within the departments under the policy to track progress.

Clear, meaningful metrics to track progress are the next step

Walmart tracks progress by looking at both weight volume – pounds of chemicals going out the door – and ubiquity – number of suppliers using these chemicals and the number of products in which they are using them. Both are important indicators of the prevalence of these chemicals in our world. Last year, Walmart achieved a 95% reduction in its High Priority Chemicals (HPCs) at Walmart US stores, equivalent to 23 million lbs. Since then, another 372,230 lbs have been removed – a 30% drop compared to the 2015 weight volume and a 96% drop since the policy began in 2014. Similar reductions continue to happen at Walmart’s Sam’s Club stores:  another 75,629 lbs have been eliminated, a 53% drop compared to the 2015 weight volume and a 68% drop compared to 2014. The second year results also reaffirm that a concerted effort to reduce a select set of priority chemicals, i.e. HPCs, drives results faster. Overall usage of Walmart Priority Chemicals continues to decrease (at Walmart US stores), but not nearly at the rate of that of Walmart HPCs.

Figure 1: The cumulative weight volume reduction of High Priority Chemicals since 2014 has been over 23.6 million lbs and over 164,000 lbs for Walmart and Sam’s Club respectively.

Walmart’s public disclosure also shows that the company isn’t afraid to share where performance is lagging

Though overall weight volume of the HPCs continues to drop, their ubiquity continues to be a challenge. Both the number of products (i.e. UPCs) containing the HPCs and the number of suppliers using them continues to drop, at both Walmart US and Sam’s Club stores, but at a rate slower than the weight volume reduction.

Figure 2: Current percent of products (or UPCs) containing and suppliers who using High Priority Chemicals in products, along with the respective percentage point changes since 2014.

The tools for success

In the end, Walmart continues to make progress against its policy as demonstrated through real data. Beyond data, what else contributes to Walmart‘s success?

  • Clear targets
  • Driving action through the business (where relationships between buyers and suppliers stress the importance of the commitments)
  • Public accountability

With new notable commitments popping up from other major retailers like Target and CVS, we hope to see similar tracking and reporting of meaningful results both directly and through the Chemical Footprint Project survey.

FURTHER READING: See EDF’s previous analysis of Walmart’s first year results here and here.


Boma Brown-West is Senior Manager of Consumer Health at EDF + Business. You can follow her on Twitter for insights and analysis on safer chemicals leadership in the supply chain and subscribe to her Behind the Label newsletter here.

Target moves up the safer chemicals leadership ladder

Yesterday Target announced a new chemicals policy that applies to all products sold in its stores and to its operations. Does this policy have the capability to transform the marketplace by ushering in safer affordable products? Let’s take a look.

In the new policy, Target announces aspirations and time-bounded goals framed in three major areas: transparency, chemical management, and innovation.

On transparency, Target has surpassed its competitors by committing to gain not only full visibility into the chemicals in final products but also into chemicals used in manufacturing operations. Target also takes a leadership stance by aspiring for this full material disclosure across all product categories. This goal is significant and noteworthy, considering the number and variety of products (and associated manufacturing processes) at the average retail store. Target will first implement this transparency goal in “beauty, baby care, personal care and household cleaning formulated products by 2020”. In one drawback, Target is quiet regarding if and how this enhanced supply chain transparency will translate into greater ingredient transparency to consumers.

In the second area, chemical management, Target vows to implement a hazard-based approach to prioritize chemicals. It announces the use of hazard profiles – which characterize the inherent health and environmental hazards of chemicals – in judging which chemicals get added to Target’s new Restricted Substances Lists (RSLs) and Manufacturing Restricted Substances Lists (MRSLs), for future reduction and/or removal. This approach is critical to fostering safer product design and is in line with the philosophy of the Commons Principles for Alternatives Assessment, guiding principles EDF helped develop.  To kick off this work, Target outlines chemical and product specific goals: removal of PFCs and flame retardants from textiles by 2022 and removal of formaldehyde and formaldehyde donors, phthalates, butyl paraben, propyl paraben, and NPEs from the formulated product categories mentioned above by 2020.

Finally, Target commits to directly support safer chemicals innovation. In doing so, Target has shown its understanding that eliminating hazardous chemicals from the consumer product value chain is half the battle; promoting the development or discovery of safer alternatives and enabling their usability in products is as important. Specifically, Target pledges an investment of up to $5 million in green chemistry innovation by 2022.

Target also pledges to publicly share progress against its new policy on an annual basis. We look forward to this regular engagement of the public and hope it will include quantitative measures of progress.

EDF commends Target for establishing a corporate chemicals policy, making it ambitious, and stipulating time-bound goals in specific product categories. Target continues the emphasis on beauty, home and personal care, and baby products that it initiated in 2013 with its Sustainable Product Index. New to the fold is action on safer textiles. In another welcome development, Target has publicly released a key set of chemicals of concern that it plans to remove from these product categories. Interestingly for formulated products, Target’s starting list of chemicals for removal is very similar to the initial set of high priority chemicals Walmart disclosed in 2016. With the two largest retailers in the U.S. not slowing down on safer chemicals leadership, the future of the marketplace looks healthier.  Will other retailers finally follow suit?