Driven by the continuous demand of more eco-friendly packaging materials for food and beverage products, there is a growing interest in the use of recycled packaging as part of a company’s sustainable initiative. Businesses, however, are well advised to pay close attention to the regulatory issues on the horizon that are presented by the use of recycled materials in food and beverage packaging.

On the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) exercises jurisdiction over food packaging materials. FDA considers each proposed use of recycled plastic on a case-by-case basis and issues informal advice (“no objection letters”) as to whether the recycling process is expected to produce plastic or paper suitable for food-contact applications. While the FDA review process can be time and resource consuming, it is the state laws that pose the most challenges for the sustainable packaging industry.

In particular, under the Model Toxics in Packaging Legislation, a national environmental initiative to reduce the heavy metals in solid waste through state legislations, the combined levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, and hexavalent chromium in packaging materials are required not to exceed 100 ppm. A total of 19 states have adopted the model legislation. The levels can present potential challenges to recycled glass because it typically contains higher levels of heavy metals than virgin glass. To date the model regulations have overlooked because the glass matrix encapsulates the heavy metals, making them incapable of migrating into the beverage. Why does recycled glass contain higher levels of heavy metals? It likely is a result of consumers putting crystal, light bulbs, and industrial glass into the recycling stream.

Another state law of note is California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (also known as Proposition 65). Under Proposition 65, businesses are required to provide a “clear and reasonable” warning before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone in California to a listed chemical. Violations of Proposition 65 are subject to civil penalties. Proposition 65 warning requirement for two chemicals commonly found in food service wares – PFOA and PFOS becomes effective in November 2018. Companies selling PFOA/PFOS-containing food packaging materials in California are vulnerable to private litigants or “bounty hunters” who can bring private lawsuits to enforce the Prop 65 warning requirements.

In addition to the state laws, we also expect consumer interest groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to continue their campaign against the use of certain chemicals in packaging. Chemicals including heavy metals, PFOA/PFOS, BPA, and PAHs in the packaging materials will continue to be portrayed as poster child for “bad chemicals.”