Food companies should know what’s in the packaging. Here’s why.

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

Recently, we recommended a series of steps that companies can take to address EDF’s top-ten list of chemicals of concern in the food supply, including setting new packaging specifications, verifying compliance, and tracking progress. Perhaps surprisingly, one action you haven’t seen us recommend until now is one of the key tenets of EDF’s Five Pillars of Safer Food Leadership: supply chain transparency, in this case into chemical additives to both raw material and final paper and plastic packaging.

The reason why is simple—the packaging supply chain can be especially opaque, and we strive to minimize frustrations when we make suggestions. People may make commitments about what’s not in their packaging, but they often seem unwilling or unable to share what is being used. As companies react to concerns about sustainability and recyclability of packaging, the opaqueness is a framework that can lead to unnecessary scrambling when questions arise and can result in regrettable substitutions. We believe the time is right to bring market scrutiny to this crucial aspect of our food. And we’re not alone.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment includes a call for plastic packaging to be free of hazardous chemicals. Unfortunately, this laudable sixth goal of six continues to get minimal attention. The Foundation’s latest report indicates more than 350 companies have become signatories, noting that “leading businesses and governments will end the use of problematic and unnecessary plastic – including PVC and single-use plastic straws and carrier bags many of them by the end of the year.” Unfortunately, with one or two exceptions, chemicals of concern aren’t referenced in the action plans being shared. And that’s concerning, given the evidence that our food is currently contaminated.

If steps aren’t taken to ensure components of virgin packaging materials are known , the problem of contaminants and risks to our health will compound, as companies make good on their commitments to increase the levels of recycled material in food packaging. And we’re all for increased recycling, as long as we’re not recirculating chemicals of concern in the process.

A clean recycle stream must be the goal and we know we’re not there yet.

Gaining insight into the chemical components used in your packaging supply chain enables you to set a baseline of toxic chemicals’ presence and prevalence. Know where you’re starting, and you know how far you need to go. Companies can and should set an initial goal of knowing all chemical additives used in the raw materials and final packaging for food or food ingredients that they sell.

Action starts with requiring information from direct packaging and ingredient suppliers. Transparency up the supply chain is achievable; it can be done via submission of reporting logs or packaging data entry via third-party chemical inventory software, supported by testing reports on both food and packaging. If actors in a supply chain are unable to determine what chemicals are in use, companies can work precompetitively to put the infrastructure in place to gain this information. It’s been done before in other retail segments; food packaging should not be the exception.

Success requires work on both companies’ and suppliers’ parts, but can ultimately provide much needed transparency to ensure the cleanest and safest food supply chain possible.

It starts by asking, “What’s in my packaging?”