The truth about toxic chemicals in food packaging and how to eliminate them


PE packaging

Dorota Napierska, Toxic-Free Circular Economy Policy Officer at Zero Waste Europe, explores the dangers of toxic chemicals in food packaging and how to eliminate them.

Have you ever stopped to consider what you may be consuming along with your coffee when you drink it from a take-out disposable paper cup? Or what sort of chemicals you may be ingesting when you eat your hamburger wrapped in paper?

You are probably consuming microplastics or “forever chemicals”, which should be alarming news, even if you are not being charged for these “extras”.

Food packaging comes in different shapes, sizes, and colours to ensure that our food remains fresh and safe, but many people are unaware that it can also be harmful because it may contain toxic chemicals that seep into our food and, eventually, enter our bodies.

Although these chemicals are not detectable through our senses, they can be measured in our blood or urine, and scientists warn that they can cause long-term health problems.

Have you ever stopped to consider what you may be consuming along with your coffee?

The 2020 “Plastic in the Spotlight“ health research project, led by Zero Waste Europe, looked for the presence of 28 hazardous chemicals. These included phthalates and bisphenols, which are chemicals commonly found in plastic packaging that are associated with cancer, cardiovascular disease, and disorders of the reproductive and immune systems.

This project tested the urine of 69 decision-makers, media personalities, public figures, and artists from 6 countries across Europe (Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Latvia, Slovenia and Bulgaria). The participants were found to have an average of 20 out of 28 chemicals present in their bodies – solid proof that the use of plastic poses a threat to our health.

Around the same time, we had reason to look to the future with hope: in December 2020, the European Commission launched a long-awaited revision of EU law regulating hazardous chemicals in food packaging (Food Contact Materials Regulation). A scientific paper that analyses results from the “Plastics in the Spotlight” project seems like a good opportunity to check how much regulatory progress has been made since then.

Promises, promises, promises

Without any doubt, the current EU rules for food packaging are not as robust as they should be. Safety is not sufficiently defined due to the lack of harmonised rules for most materials and lack of transparency, and the current legislation is not effective enough to address the possible cumulative effects of substances migrating from packaging – to mention the most important gaps and shortcomings.

The revision of the current law promised to reflect commitments given in EU key strategies, including the Farm to Fork, the Circular Economy Action Plan and the Chemicals Strategy for sustainability towards a toxic-free environment.

However, almost 3 years later, this revision is facing further delays, and it is very uncertain when exactly and what changes to the current system will be proposed. The revision of other EU important laws dealing with the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) regulation has been delayed as well. Clearly, ambitions from 2020 and policy progress have stagnated on the far-reaching chemical impact on health and the environment.



The European Commission committed, in its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, to ban the most harmful chemicals in all consumer products. Due to intense lobbying by the chemical industry, more robust regulatory actions are stalled.

One of its tactics is to shift the focus from the huge impacts of hazardous substances on our health and the environment and scaremonger over other key pieces of the Green Deal – EU’s climate and decarbonisation goals.

The bottom line is the chemical industry isn’t carrying the burden of the true cost of toxic chemicals. Results from the biggest-ever European human biomonitoring programme reveal that the wider population, including children, is exposed to alarmingly high levels of hazardous chemicals. Studies show that we underestimate the total costs to society of health impacts, and only focus on a fraction of the total contaminants people are exposed to.

Can we get any clearer proof of regulatory failure than that?

Packaging in the spotlight

Sandwich packaging

As more sustainable circular economy packaging solutions are developed, the critical aspect of chemical safety cannot be left behind. It’s time to take the regulation of hazardous chemicals seriously. The revision of the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste law creates a great opportunity to address non-toxic aspects of all materials along the whole life cycle of packaging.

This is in fact also in agreement with the EU’s Chemicals Strategy, which calls for complementary approaches to assess and manage chemicals in sectorial legislations, especially those that regulate consumer products.

We simply must recognise the urgency needed to act on hazardous substances now – we should not waste any more time to do so.

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