In a recent post, we discussed the food safety challenge posed by the presence of mineral oil in recycled fibres. We argued that although several possible solutions exist, they all elicit questions. Also, they largely involve substantial increases in packaging costs and major process changes. What are these solutions?
Stop using recycled fibres and switch back to virgin fibres
Using virgin pulp exclusively would result in a 25 % cost increase, not to mention the devastating impact it would have on our natural resources. Also, if we went purely with new cardboard, our entire recycled cardboard division would collapse. That’s really not what we’re aiming for!
Change the composition of newspaper printing inks
This option would solve the root of the problem, but it’s unlikely to be adopted in an industry that’s already severely weakened by competition from electronic and other media. Not only would changing the ink type be expensive, it may not even be technologically possible with current printing presses. In the food packaging printing sector, vegetable-based ink could be an interesting alternative to consider. Vegetable-based inks that are currently available include flaxseed, soybean and sunflower oil.
Sort fibres at the source to remove newspaper or incorporate more virgin fibres
Currently, the idea that we could refine sorting processes enough to completely remove newspaper is just a pipe dream. Although this option would significantly lessen the risk of migration, there are practical constraints inherent to the sorting and collection processes. Incorporating more virgin fibres is not a real solution—diluting the pulp wouldn’t completely negate the risk of migration.
Strengthen inner packaging bags to form a better barrier
Polyethylene (PE) bags do not prevent migration. We would need to find the right barrier for preventing or reducing migration: an aluminum or metallised PET bag. Such a change would lead to significant technological challenges in packaging lines and inevitable cost increases. It’s also worth recalling that the bag becomes useless once it is open, since migration is volatile (airborne).
Apply a functional barrier
Applying a surface treatment to paper could curb mineral oil migration. Extrusion coating and water coating processes look like promising options. Still, major challenges remain. We would have to develop an innovative, low-cost functional barrier that could completely stop migration.
A few recommendations in light of this analysis
- Fill the current regulatory void and define mineral oil regulations;
- Promote the use of vegetable-based or low-migration printing inks for packaging;
- Carry out more studies on analysis methods, oil migration and above all, the impact of that phenomenon on human health.
This brings our two-post series on the subject to a close. While health and eco-friendliness are usually two complementary aspects of sustainable development, here, they are causing a paradox. What do you think about this? Feel free to voice your comments or questions.