Chemicals in Plastic Packaging: Challenges for Regulation and the Circular Economy

Jane Muncke, Lisa Zimmermann
2023, Campus Verlag
Plastics are complex chemical mixtures. They contain many different chemicals; some serving a specific function in the plastic product (such as additives that make plastic flexible or hard) and some having no functionality, such as impurities or degradation products. When addressing the issue of chemicals in plastics, it is reasonable to focus mostly on plastics used for food contact purposes, as here most data and information are available and these chemicals may directly transfer into foodstuffs where they are ingested by humans—although there is an increasing evidence base also for chemicals present in other, non-food contact plastics. We assume that plastic food contact materials (FCMs) are the most direct and relevant human exposure source to chemicals in plastics for the general population. Therefore, in this chapter, we zoom in on plastic and bioplastic FCMs. It is however important to note that plastic chemicals used for other applications than FCMs are also important. First, we discuss the chemical composition of food contact plastics, their risk assessment, regulation, and potential health consequences. Then, we evaluate the fate of plastics in a circular economy, including the impact of recycling, and the role of alternative materials such as bioplastics.

Food Packaging Contaminants

Jane Muncke, Birgit Geueke, Lindsey Parkinson, Lisa Zimmermann
2024, In: Encyclopedia of Food Safety. Editor: Smiters G.W.; Academic Press, Volume 3, pages 321-333.
  • DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-822521-9.00115-5
Food packaging prevents foods from spoiling and enables traceability, marketing, and sharing of information with customers. But chemicals from packaging can transfer into foodstuffs, a process known as migration, and this is also relevant for other food contact materials (like processing equipment). This article explains the concept of migration, details what conditions lead to increased migration (including the food packaging material types), discusses options for assessing migration, outlines global regulations for food packaging, and touches upon challenges related to food packaging in the circular economy, for example where packaging is reused or recycled, and where increased chemical contamination can occur.

Hazards of food contact materials: Food packaging contaminants

Muncke, J.
2014, In: Encyclopedia of Food Safety. Editor: Mortarjemi Y.; Waltham, Academic Press, Volume 2, pages 430-437.
  • DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-378612-8.00218-3
Packaging of food serves many purposes. Logistics and transportation, marketing and consumer information, and preservation and storage of foods are enabled and enhanced by packaging. However, materials that come into direct contact with foods are also always potential sources of chemical food contamination and the relevance of this source is often underestimated. The process of chemical transfer from the packaging to the food is known as migration. Analysis and quantification of migrants from food contact materials can be achieved by different means. Regulation of chemicals for use in food contact materials is managed on a substance-by-substance approach with generic or specific thresholds for different contaminants.

Food contact materials: Practices, agencies and challenges

Muncke J.
2014, In: Toxicants in Food Packaging and Household Plastics: Exposure and Health Risks to Consumers. Editor: Snedeker S.M.; Springer Verlag London, pages 265-297.
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4471-6500-2_11
Foods and beverages are often processed and packaged before we consume them. Any material that intentionally comes into contact with foodstuffs is called food contact material (FCM). Many FCMs are plastics or are made of synthetic polymeric materials, like coatings and adhesives. Individual chemicals used for the manufacture of FCMs are called food contact substances (FCS). Specific regulations aim at limiting the migration of FCS into the food, thereby reducing risks of chronic chemical exposure to human health. However, FCMs are an under-recognized source of chemical food contamination. Currently, around 4,000 substances are used in FCMs. The challenge of determining which FCSs are present in food and beverages by chemical analysis is further increased by non-intentionally added substances (NIASs) that are impurities and breakdown products, or formed as reaction by-products of polymerization processes. Over the last few decades, scientific research has increased our understanding of risks linked to chronic chemical exposures. Of particular concern are endocrine disrupting chemicals that affect our body’s hormone systems, mixture effects of chemicals present at individual no-effect levels, transgenerational inheritance of epigenetic effects, and the importance of protecting the developing fetus and infant from harmful chemical exposures. Taken together, these research findings offer important opportunities for prevention of chronic disease. This chapter summarizes current use, regulation and risk assessment of FCMs in the United States of America (U.S.) and the European Union (E.U.). Challenges to the risk assessment process arising from recent scientific insights are discussed, and recommendations how to address these challenges are made.

Chemical migration from food packaging to food

Muncke J.
2016, In: Reference Module in Food Science. Elsevier.
  • DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-08-100596-5.03311-4
Food packaging and other materials that are used to store or process foods are known as food contact materials (FCMs). FCMs can transfer chemicals into food, and this process is known as migration. It depends on temperature, storage time, and chemical and physical properties of both the FCM and the foodstuff. Both intentionally added substances and non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) can migrate into food. Overall migration testing analyzes the total mass transfer from an FCM into food and is a qualitative measure for the inertness of a packaging material. Migration is studied in order to assess the human health risk of a chemical ingested with food.