Reports that harmful chemicals from recycled paper used to make cereal boxes could be absorbed into food caused a mini-whirlwind of panic for consumers last week.
As BBC Breakfast asked “is it safe to recycle?” and the Daily Mail called it a “cornflakes cancer scare”, therecycling and packaging industries reassuringly explained that the issue had already been recognised. Yet it is a controversial one for those involved because the true extent of the danger linked to mineral oils is not yet known.
“Although no toxicological studies on the effects of human exposure to traces of mineral oil hydrocarbons exist currently,” a statement by the Confederation of European Packaging Industries (CEPI) said, “the paper and packaging industry takes this matter very seriously.
“I don’t think it is necessarily a negative story about newsprint recycling – it may now mean that more recovered newsprint is available to be used to make more newspapers in a closed loop process.”
“In the absence of clear regulatory guidance, the paper and board sector is being proactive, in particular by investigating the possibilities of phasing out materials containing mineral oil in their production processes…
“Such technology changes will take time. As a start, packaging companies are making commitments to use only mineral oil-free inks for printing their packaging and, wherever possible, using recovered paper types with minimal mineral oil content.”
When MRW contacted a handful of paper recycling and packaging firms for their comments on the situation, they all pointed towards the CEPI statement. No doubt those companies affected by this issue will be waiting for the official opinion of the European Food Safety Authority, due to be published in September.
But newsprint recycler Aylesford Newsprint head of recycling Andrew Perkins told MRW: “It is a significant moveby food packagers to have these issues with food contact, as they will determine what products they buy for packaging.
“But I haven’t yet noticed a trend among the packaging industry we work with to move away from using newsprint. It may well change if more retailers decide they do not want to sell packaging made with recycled newsprint [which could mean newsprint is recycled separately from cardboard].
“But I don’t think it is necessarily a negative story about newsprint recycling – it may now mean that more recovered newsprint is available to be used to make more newspapers in a closed loop process.”
Cereal producer Jordans has altered its packaging because of this mineral oils issue, although not directly because of the BBC article, which revealed new research on the subject last week.
A Jordans spokesman added: “We will be discussing improved supply of recycled board that avoids content from newspapers with the industry and our suppliers.”
Whether more food producers using cardboard to package their products will move the same way remains to be seen. But the British Retail Consortium (BRC) supports comments made by the industry that there is no need to panic.
Food director Andrew Opie said: “Our members work closely with the Food Standards Agency and follow its guidance. There isn’t currently any evidence that ink in recycled packaging poses a danger to health.
“Standards are being updated constantly as a matter of routine. The latest version of the BRC’s Global Standard For Packaging includes extra safeguards to reduce the risk of chemicals, such as ink, getting into food. Customers have no reason to be worried.”
This line is genuinely being upheld by all those industries affected by the possible risk associated with carcinogenic mineral oils. The research that has newly come to light demonstrates an obvious issue with such oils and food contact. But it is dependent on how much of the paper fibre within the packaging contains mineral oils.
In fact, scientists say that a normal diet should stop any real risk of harm and a person would have to be exposed to the toxins over a long period of time before anything adverse happened.
We no longer wrap our fish and chips in newspapers because it is considered unhygienic. So any change in using recovered newsprint within recycling food packaging may be a logical step.
Whatever changes this information leads to, let’s hope it will not harm paper recycling progress.