Bad news for environmentalists. The law of unintended consequences has struck again as it turns out that food packaged in recycled cardboard boxes, including most cereals, is potentially contaminated with toxic chemicals (mineral oils) which somehow migrate from the cardboard to the food (even through plastic inners) and then into our bodies. According to this page on the BBC website, where I first read the story:
Exposure to mineral oils has been linked to inflammation of internal organs and cancer.
Oh joy. Now we have to worry about recycled cardboard?!
Apparently most of the cardboard packaging used in the UK contains at least some proportion of recycled material because virgin cardboard is now too expensive and rare to use exclusively. Which would be good news were it not for this apparent transfer of nasties from the cardboard into our food.
So what can be done? Kellogg’s and Weetabix are looking into how they might reduce the mineral oil content, perhaps by using cardboard that isn’t made from old newspapers. This is relevant because appears that most of the oils come from printing inks in newspapers. It strikes me that there should be a process to extract those inks from the paper during the recycling process. Either that or we pass a regulation banning inks based on mineral oils (cue business lobbies vigorously defending their right to use mineral inks!).
When I got the welcome booklets and flyers for the Alliance printed I used a company that only uses vegetable based inks, which in my view look much brighter, more natural and generally nicer than the mineral equivalent as well as having the added benefit of being recyclable without worrying too much about their ability to pass on toxicity to the food chain. I was extremely pleased with the results. Another benefit of vegetable based inks is that they don’t release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) during production and use. Here’s some info from A Local Printer’s website:
The removal of IPA alcohol and use of vegetable ink has virtually eliminated our emissions of VOC’s – Volatile Organic Compounds – into the atmosphere. These VOC’s are a major source of ozone pollution and are a potential a health hazard to our staff.
Back to the cardboard packaging, how about going even more radical and getting rid of cardboard altogether? When I ran a food shop I sold some cereals made by a company called Rude Health who put their cereals in plastic bags without external boxes. However, there were issues with displaying the packaging effectively on the shelf and I had to use a range of solutions to stop wastage, which I suspect would be beyond your average supermarket. It appears they still produce their cardboard free cereals.
I think it might be beyond the bigger companies to stop using cardboard altogether as it’s one way they can be sure their products will look good on the shelf and then tempt us to buy it. But you can imagine a shop display devoted to, say, corn flakes where individual bags (i.e. no cardboard) are positioned within a purpose-built structure so they both look good and avoid the packaging. A bit like Waitrose have done with their beef.
In any case, let’s hope the boffins can find a sensible solution soon as a public backlash against recycled cardboard packaging wouldn’t be in anyone’s interests. The last thing we need is to reverse the general trend in recycling which has seen more of us in Scotland sorting our rubbish than ever before. In the meantime, Jordans (who have a strong environmental policy) has announced that their cereals will be packaged in virgin cardboard, which is recyclable at the other end.