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. We made a list of food packaging chemicals, provided advice for companies to “start clean” on food packaging, designed step-by-step guidance with a new interactive tool for companies to act on ingredient safety.

This week Walmart joined a growing number of companies that are trying to advance the circular economy for packaging. Like previous commitments from Nestle, Coca-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.

What defines safer packaging?

There are many facets to sustainable packaging: recyclability, reusability, lower material and energy inputs, and the avoidance of toxic chemicals. A significant amount of virgin plastic used in packaging currently contains toxic chemical additives such as ortho-phthalates or contaminants such as heavy metals. These chemicals have been linked to diseases and health disorders, such as reproductive problems and impaired brain development. When tainted plastic packaging is reused or recycled, these toxic chemicals persist and may accumulate to worrisome levels until the packaging is retired, posing long-term threats to our health.

Why the urgency?

In 2017, China announced that it would stop accepting plastic waste imports, which upended long-term waste strategies of Western companies. Greater attention on plastic waste in our oceans also led more companies to publicly address the plastic waste problem. To date, more than 250 companies, representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally, have joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, an ambitious campaign to reduce plastic waste in our environment by 2025. Leading food producers also announced a plan to invest $100 million to combat plastic in the ocean and advance the circular economy. This momentum is huge and desperately needed to fix our waste problem.

One of the six principles of the New Plastics Economy vision calls for all plastic packaging to be “free of hazardous chemicals,” and for “the health, safety, and rights of all people involved [to be] respected.” Yet, no company has set specific goals to meet this crucial principle. This is a concern because if participating organizations ignore setting specific goals for safer packaging, they may undermine the broader success of their other circular economy efforts by perpetuating toxic chemicals in the materials stream.

Many companies stepping up efforts are also part of the food supply chain. As we’ve explored before, one major way that toxic chemicals can enter our food is by migration from food packaging. For example, FDA studies have shown increased levels of perchlorate, an additive in plastic dry food packaging, appearing in our food, including baby food. Exposure to perchlorate threatens children’s brain development.

We want higher recycling rates of food packaging, and we want safer food.

Eliminating the use of toxic chemicals in virgin packaging is needed to clean up the recycling stream and protect our food and our families.

In this series, we’ll dig deeper into the options available for companies to meet their sustainable packaging goals while also minimizing the presence of toxic chemicals. Stay tuned.