Snacking your popcorn from a paper bag feels great, right? Chinese or pizza takeaway, French fries, or fruit from the market: these goodies are becoming less of a guilty pleasure as we switch to more sustainable and safe packaging alternatives.
Or so we think: these innocuous wrappings are coming with an invisible extra. The so-called PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) often coat them – referring to chemical compounds with remarkable features such as durability, oil, and heat resistance. People often call PFAS “forever chemicals” due to their exceptional stability and persistence in the environment.
Once released into the environment, they can accumulate in soil, water, and living organisms, including humans, creating potential long-term exposure risks and negative health effects. Many of these risks are not fully understood; other health risks associated with PFAS exposure have been known for decades, especially for children, linked to cancer, liver damage, and developmental issues.
As the EU (European Union) discusses a radical restriction on their use, we are looking at an inspiring policy example from Denmark, where they have successfully applied measures to protect people and the planet.
Tackling Forever Chemicals: Ambitions to regulate PFAS
While it is undeniable that many chemical substances have a positive impact on our lives, e.g. in medical contexts, effective policies and good implementation are needed to restrain the carefree, unsafe, and irresponsible use of chemicals.
The PFAS family consists of over 10,000 different chemicals that have been used and manufactured since the 1960s. Scientists have long suspected various PFAS substances of causing cancer, infertility, obesity, and immune deficiencies in children. Nevertheless, systematically regulating the use and disposal of PFAS remains challenging.
At the beginning of 2023, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden submitted a proposal to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to restrict PFAS under REACH, the main EU law to protect human health and the environment from the risks that chemicals can pose.
So far, only two substances in the group have been banned: PFOS and PFOA. This discussion is long overdue given their widespread use and yet immense potential harm to people and the planet.
A common argument is that there are few alternatives to the versatile and extremely practical chemical group PFAS – or that these alternatives would be too expensive. A Danish policy, however, has proven these concerns wrong. Can decision-makers take a good example from this and realize the long-awaited “chemical transition”?
Denmark’s PFAS Ban: A Game-Changer in Food Safety
Denmark relies on imported paper and board food packaging due to a lack of domestic production. The Danish DTU National Food Institute (NFI) is responsible for scientifically assessing risks and research-based monitoring data in the country.
In the early 2010s, during research on potentially hazardous substances and their risk of leaching into food-contact materials, a group of scientists uncovered various PFAS types in nearly all paper and board food packaging, posing a heightened risk of contaminating food.
Despite industry resistance, they amassed evidence of the substances’ toxicity, including immunotoxicity and endocrine disruption. The NFI organized conferences and stakeholder meetings to raise awareness of PFAS in food contact materials (FCM) and their health effects. They also developed cost-effective methods to detect PFAS in products.
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Surprisingly, the original impulse for a ban came from the retail industry. As far back as 2015, the Danish member-owned supermarket Coop decided to ban all PFAS in food packaging and handed a draft resolution to the Danish parliament for a legal ban.
The Order on food contact materials and penalties for breaches of related EU legislation, effective from May 2020, provided a legal framework to implement the NFI’s guidelines. This enforcement led the industry to adopt PFAS-free packaging at negligible cost increases.
Reducing PFAS contamination: How policies can trigger innovation
The policy action has already led to remarkable results: A study by the Czech non-profit organization Arnika showed that in 2020, Danish paper bags for French fries from McDonald’s contained only 5.5 mg/kg dw of total organic fluorine, whereas the same bags in the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom contained 480 and 470 mg/kg dw respectively. It is a 98.8% difference.
Due to the ban, retailers had to find alternatives to PFAS-coated paper and board FCM, leading to innovation in the industry. Since it is often argued that there is no alternative to widely used toxic substances, this is a good example of how legal pressure can stimulate innovation and the search for other solutions in the industry.
Considering the recently proposed restriction on PFAS by the European Commission, submitted to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in January 2023, Denmark’s ban on PFAS in paper and board food contact materials, initiated in 2020, emerges as a pioneering legal action against these “forever chemicals.” It complements the European Regulation (EC) No 1935/2004, surpassing European Standards.
A path towards a safer future
While the ban does not cover all products, it sets a valuable starting point, given the considerable risk of PFAS exposure for consumers.
Denmark’s ban has prompted discussions about other PFAS applications, inspiring national and EU-level bans on all product types. The policy received the Future Policy Award 2023, an award organized by the World Future Council alongside international partners, which highlights the best policy solutions that protect people, especially children, and the environment from hazardous chemicals in products and that work towards a toxic-free world.
Nikhil Seth, Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), one of the award’s partners, stated: “Chemicals hold undeniable significance within our society. Their indispensability becomes evident when we acknowledge the myriad of vital advantages they offer across various domains, notably in the realms of medical advancements and consumer goods. However, it is imperative to recognise that the judicious and conscientious employment of these substances is of utmost importance. By doing so, we can effectively mitigate the potential hazards they pose to human well-being and the environment.”
Denmark’s initiative to eliminate PFAS from food packaging has highlighted the way towards a healthier and safer future. A future where you can enjoy your popcorn without worrying about the environment. Ideally, it would be best to avoid disposable wrappings altogether, but if that cannot be avoided, you can at least still order a large portion of popcorn with butter topping but without any PFAS.
About the Future Policy Award 2023
In 2023, the Future Policy Award highlights the best policy solutions that protect people, especially children, and the environment from hazardous chemicals in products, and that work towards a toxic-free world. The winners of the 2023 Future Policy Award were announced at a high-level ceremony on the 28th of September at the ICCM5 in Bonn, Germany. The Future Policy Award 2023 is organised by the World Future Council in partnership with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
About the author
Miriam Petersen is a Communications Consultant who spent over a decade working in the non-profit sector. Miriam holds a Master’s degree in European History and Literature. Her thesis was about the social and political role of women in early modern Ireland. Originally from the German North, she is based in the West of Ireland with her husband and three daughters, where they planted almost one thousand trees on their land.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — Featured Photo Credit: Unsplash.