Packaging standards consultation
From July to September 2023 we consulted on changes to our packaging standards. The goal of the consultation was to understand how Soil Association packaging standards can support businesses to:
- reduce the use of problematic plastics that are damaging or unrecyclable
- minimise the use of toxic or harmful chemicals in packaging
- source materials from systems that support sustainable land management
Responses will be used to inform our proposals to the Soil Association Standards Board. We will publish a summary of responses by the end of 2023 with any updates planned for 2024.
Why do we have packaging standards?
The production, use and disposal of packaging can have a big impact on the environment and human health. Packaging, in certain sectors, plays a fundamental role in ensuring the quality, safety and integrity of food and drink products.
The Soil Association is the only organic standard's setter in the UK that has higher standards on packaging, when buying SA organic products consumers expect products that are less harmful to human and environmental health, sourced from more sustainable land management systems and are recyclable or reusable where possible.
Our packaging standards extend throughout the food supply chain to ensure that sustainability is built into the whole packaging cycle and aim to carry the organic principles into product packaging wherever possible.
Why are we reviewing the standards?
Packaging is a fast-moving area, since we last did a standards review there have been significant changes in packaging regulation, technical innovation, citizen expectations and retailer requirements. Our standards need to be reviewed to remain relevant in this new context.
As new materials become available there are new opportunities and challenges that require us to consider how our standards ensure consumer safety, maintain market competitiveness, and prepare our licensees to make the best decisions for their product supply chains.
The purpose of the consultation is to understand how easy (or challenging) it will be for licensees to comply with the new requirements, what changes would need to be made, and to understand the applications and needs for businesses that certify to Soil Association’s higher standards.
What was consulted on?
We reviewed some existing packaging standards to increase their impact and relevance as well as introducing changes to make it more straightforward for licensees to verify compliance. These include proposals to:
- Lift the restriction on aluminium foil (SA GB Food and Drink 5.16.3) as a food contact material. This restriction was based on evidence that suggested an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease from exposure to aluminium food contact materials. More recent evidence has shown that there is no causal link between aluminium food packaging and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Expand the phthalates restriction (5.16.4) to all packaging materials, not just food contact, as they are harmful chemicals known to have negative environmental and human health impacts. They are used to create flexibility in certain plastics, and not chemically bound to the plastic to which they are added meaning they can continuously leach into foodstuffs, and the environment. There are functional alternatives to the use of phthalates widely available on the market.
- Broaden the PVC standard (5.16.5) to cover all chlorinated plastics. There are similar environmental and health implications associated with the manufacture, use and disposal of all chlorinated plastics and they can pollute and undermine recycling systems.
To tackle new challenges that we face with packaging materials and support licensees to make more sustainable choices, we proposed to add new packaging standards including:
- A requirement for paper, card and wood-pulp packaging materials to be sourced from responsible forest management systems. Demand for paper packaging has increased, putting pressure on forest ecosystems for materials. As part of our commitment to reduce the deforestation risk of organic products we are proposing standards to guarantee the use of certified materials that are sourced responsibly.
- A restriction on the use of polystyrene plastics in primary packaging. Polystyrene is widely used in the food supply chain principally for its thermal and physical insulation properties. However, polystyrene is considered a ‘problem plastic’ due to its persistence in the environment. It is one of the most common pollutants of marine environments. The chemical 'styrene' used in its manufacture is known to have negative human health impacts. Polystyrene is not readily recycled in the UK, in a primary packaging context this is particularly complicated as it is inconsistent with home recycling and may become a pollutant of other recycling streams or end up in landfill. Where polystyrene is used in a business-to-business environment it performs specific functions for which there are few alternatives. In the supply chain polystyrene can operate within a packaging reuse/return system.
- A ban on use of oxo-degradable plastics. Oxo-degradable plastics are considered a ‘problem plastic’ owing to their environmental impacts. They contribute to microplastic pollution as they are conventional plastics that fragment by design and are not suited for long-term reuse, recycling at scale or composting. By restricting oxo-degradable plastics we hope to support licensees to find genuine alternatives to harmful packaging and avoid what we see as false solutions.
- A restriction on per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl (PFAS) substances. PFAS refers to a group of chemicals known as 'forever chemicals' as they are extremely persistent in the environment. They are widely used in consumer goods for their non-stick/greaseproof properties, in food packaging this means greaseproof paper/card. PFAS chemicals are known to disrupt hormone systems and are linked to cancers and immune system disorders. By restricting their use in food packaging, we can support the organic sector to find alternatives and protect their consumers from exposure to harmful chemicals.