Learn The Truth About Food Packaging from This Green Chemist
Wondering which plastic containers to avoid and which are safe to eat from? How to learn about chemicals in food packaging? Or how to make sure you are buying BPA-free foods? Do you assume all plastic food packaging is recyclable? These questions — and so much more — are all answered in our recently published FoodPrint of Food Packaging Report.
But sometimes you just want an answer, not to read a report, and we get that. Which is why we recently held a Twitter chat with Dr. Martin Mulvihill, researcher and advisor at the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry and general partner with Safer Made, a mission-driven venture capital fund that invests in companies that remove or reduce the use of harmful chemicals in products and manufacturing processes. As a consultant on FoodPrint’s packaging report, Mulvihill was the perfect person to break down the nitty-gritty of food packaging and answer all our questions about “forever chemicals,” recycling and more.
Mulvihill shared his expertise with our audience about all things food packaging, and we’ve gathered his answers here:
Is it okay if I get a coffee in a paper cup, as long as I recycle it? Can’t all types of food packaging be recycled or composted anyway?
Globally, we use 16 billion coffee cups per year. These are coated with plastic and often have plastic lids. The paper will not compost and is hard to recycle because of the liner and contamination. Only a tiny fraction of our plastic is actually recycled.
What are the most dangerous chemicals in food packaging and how can I avoid them?
BPA, Polystyrene and PFAS are probably the biggest concerns that consumers are likely to run into on a regular basis. Avoid BPA, by avoiding canned goods and cash register receipts. To avoid polystyrene, stay away from Styrofoam containers, as well as any plastic with the number 6, including coffee cup lids and many plastic clamshells. Avoiding non-stick pans, microwave popcorn and paper to-go containers will help protect you from PFAS.
What are the best options to choose for environmental and public health safety when it comes to food packaging?
The best thing is to avoid overly processed and packaged foods. A lot of the same advice that people give about eating healthy also apply to packaging. Less processed and prepared food, more fresh food washed and prepared at home.
What are “forever chemicals”? How can I avoid them?
Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of chemicals related to Teflon that persist in the environment for 1000s of years. These chemicals are often used to provide greaseproof and non-stick coating on paper and metal. Avoid non-stick pans, microwave popcorn and paper to-go containers will help protect you from PFAS.
Why are there toxic chemicals in my food packaging anyway?
Until recently it was assumed that harmful chemicals like BPA, styrene, PFAS, and phthalates would stay in the packaging and would not get into our food or our bodies. Recent evidence from the American Academy of Pediatrics demonstrates that these chemicals are leaching into our food and our bodies from the packaging.
What changes are being made in food packaging production to mitigate the current issues?
The most exciting improvement is that starting next year products with the BPI composability certification will be PFAS free!
How can consumers make a difference when it comes to food packaging?
Avoid unnecessary packaging and speak up about chemicals of concern. Many people are unaware that there is very little oversight or transparency regarding the chemicals used in food packaging.
What’s the most promising innovation you’ve seen in food packaging?
The innovations in bio-based and biodegradable plastics are creating opportunities for better functioning compostable items. There are also many exciting innovations focused on making reusables more convenient and affordable.
What’s something you wish more consumers knew about?
I think consumers are well informed and are making the best choices possible, we can expect all the responsibility to be with the consumers. I wish that brands and retailers had a better line of sight into the materials used in packaging. With more information and transparency, I believe they would do a better job providing what consumers are already asking for: a safe and sustainable food system.
What is a simple way to start cutting out single-use plastic?
Eat-in, cook at home, buy fewer processed foods. It is better for you and the planet!
What simple swaps do you make to cut out typical food packaging needs?
Buying in bulk with reusable bags.
What’s the one most important change I could make for my health when it comes to food packaging?
Avoiding single-use packaging and processed food go hand in hand and they are both good for your health and the planet.