In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Boma Brown-West, director of consumer health at Environmental Defense Fund and an expert on the safety of common consumer products. Brown-West discusses how everyday items—such as plastic bags and containers of food—are energy intensive to make, full of chemicals that are harmful to human health, and rarely reused or recycled. Consumers can push companies to use less toxic materials, but Brown-West contends that more progress can come from the federal government doing more to monitor and set limits on the use of dangerous chemicals.
- Toxic chemicals in our packaging: “One thing that isn’t well-known is that the products and the packaging that we put on our body and sometimes the food we ingest are all sources of exposure to toxic chemicals. When we talk about packaging, for example, there are roughly 12,000 chemicals that are intentionally added to packaging to provide the functionality we need—for example, to make sure that it’s water repellent or moisture repellent, to give it stretchiness, or to provide a certain type of color or look. But lurking inside that packaging … chemicals that are directly added can pose a problem.” (8:18)
- Companies struggle to be sustainable: “Today, there is some awareness in industry around needing to utilize more sustainable packaging, but there are competing product claims like ‘compostable,’ ‘recyclable,’ ‘low carbon,’ and ‘nontoxic.’ It’s nearly impossible for companies to know which materials are truly safer and more sustainable and how to really balance those trade-offs.” (13:36)
- Federal action on public health and packaging: “State-level action is helpful in terms of bringing these issues to the fore and demonstrating different ways to tackle them, but at the end of the day—especially if I’m talking about the United States—we need uniform federal action that puts public health first.” (22:01).
Top of the Stack
- ""The world has a packaging problem—a new tool gives companies the ability to fix it” by Boma Brown-West
- The “Understanding Packaging Scorecard” from Environmental Defense Fund
- American War by Omar El Akkad
- Degrees podcast from Environmental Defense Fund
- Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town by Colin Jerolmack
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today we talk with Boma Brown-West, director of consumer health at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Boma works on a wide range of issues related to the safety of consumer products, and in today's episode she'll help us understand some of the risks associated with packaging. Along with the well-known environmental damages from plastic pollution, we'll dig into the lesser-known risks to human health from the chemicals that are part of the packaging we consume every day. Whether it's single-use plastics, food containers, or even pizza boxes, there's reason to be concerned, and there’s a lot we don't know about how these products affect our long-term health. Stay with us.
Daniel Raimi: All right, Boma Brown-West from EDF, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Boma Brown-West: Hi, thank you for inviting me.
Daniel Raimi: Boma, we're going to talk today about the issue of packaging, which I'm really looking forward to because I know just about nothing about it. But before we dive into the details, we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental issues, either at a young age or at an older age, so what steered you into the line of work?
Boma Brown-West: When I was a little kid, the world started learning more about the ozone layer and what was going on with it and issues with acid rain, and all of that really stuck with me. The environment became something I was pretty interested in all along, even as I pursued engineering as my career and everything. But on top of that I do have to say that I was of the age when Captain Planet was on the air and loved watching Captain Planet. I think I probably watched every single episode, and it just showed me the breadth of environmental issues that are out there that we needed to solve. That definitely made me very passionate about environmental issues.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that is so fascinating. You are the second person in the last couple of weeks who mentioned Captain Planet as a key driver of their environmental awareness. The other guest who talked about Captain Planet was Gilbert Michaud from Loyola University of Chicago, so Captain Planet is being very well represented lately here on Resources Radio.
Boma Brown-West: Excellent. I mean, it was a great show, and I do think we need more types of media like that to help really engage people as they're growing up on these issues.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, I totally agree. I hope that we get more of it; I have a three-year-old, and we don't watch a lot of TV now, but I'm sure we will be watching some more in the future. I hope to be able to show him some pretty excellent environmental content. And if not, then we'll just go back to the old Captain Planet and see how that goes.
So Boma, let's talk now about the main subject of our conversation, which is packaging. So you published a blog post recently with the title “The world has a packaging problem—a new tool gives companies the ability to fix it.” We're going to dive into some of the details in the next 25 minutes or so, but can you start off just by giving us a high-level overview of the different types of environmental concerns or health concerns that we might have about packaging as it currently exists?
Boma Brown-West: Yeah, with packaging, there are a number of environmental issues surrounding this everyday material that we have in our lives, and most of the conversation is around waste and the huge impact that it's having on our planet and our oceans. I'm sure many of your listeners have seen images of packaging waste that's building up around the globe in cities, on beaches, and in our oceans. Often what's overlooked there is the health impact from the chemicals used in packaging.
Lurking in packaging, especially in food packaging, are toxic chemicals that get into our food and ultimately into our bodies. Those chemicals have been linked to chronic health issues like infertility or endocrine disruption, and even cancer. And so, when we think about packaging and the problem, it’s, on one hand, the environmental impact that it's having, but also the direct health impact it's having on our daily lives.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, it's so interesting. As you say, there's been so much focus on the environmental risks of plastics, things like plastic straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles, other single-use plastics. The issue of health has not gotten as much attention, and we're going to talk about that in just a minute. But first, let's review some of the big environmental risks that packaging poses, whether it's plastics or others. How should we think about the scale of the environmental damage that plastics pose? We’ve all seen pictures of plastics on the beaches, and maybe some of us have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and others. Can you give us some ways to wrap our heads around the scale of the problem?
Boma Brown-West: Yeah. Most of the images that are fresh in our mind are at the end when the packaging has become waste, but the environmental impact of packaging really starts all the way back at the beginning, especially when you're talking about plastic packaging production, which is very energy intensive.
There are clear climate impacts of just producing the packaging that we have in our lives. Globally, roughly eight billion tons of plastic have been generated, or over eight billion tons of plastic, and almost half of that is single-use plastic packaging. When you think of that, this is packaging that only has one use, one usefulness, and then after that, we have to consider the waste that generates on our planet.
EPA stated in 2018 that 28 percent of municipal solid waste, which was equivalent to 82 million tons, was packaging and other types of packaging containers. But when we think about those numbers, and we think about the United States—and also the globe—the issue is that we do not have the waste recovery infrastructure to match that type of generation.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. When you say waste recovery infrastructure, is that the type of thing that I would think of as recycling, or does that encompass other ways of dealing with these types of wastes?
Boma Brown-West: Yeah, recycling's definitely a big one. As we think about the concept of the circular economy, it's also, “What can we do in addition to recycling? How can we reuse materials in their current state?” That infrastructure includes collection and, of course, breaking down the materials and reusing them, but that type of infrastructure is not where it needs to be when we're talking about our current system.
Daniel Raimi: That's so interesting and concerning. As you said, there's been less attention paid to some of the potential health risks associated with packaging in its many forms in the United States and around the world. Can you start us off with a few more details about the direct risks to human health that packaging currently poses?
Boma Brown-West: Sure. One thing that isn't well known is that the products and the packaging that we put on our body and sometimes the food we ingest are all sources of exposure to toxic chemicals. When we talk about packaging, for example, there are roughly 12,000 chemicals that are intentionally added to packaging to provide the functionality we need—for example, to make sure that it's water repellent or moisture repellent, to give it stretchiness, or to provide a certain type of color or look. But lurking inside that packaging, especially inside food packaging, chemicals that are directly added can pose a problem.
In addition to those, there are also 100,000 chemicals that unintentionally migrate into the food from various food contact articles, and these are the things that weren't intentionally added but were potentially picked up along the way during production.
A great way to think about this is by looking at a pizza box. The reason a pizza box—a cardboard box—is able to withstand grease is because of a class of chemicals called PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and these substances are commonly used as grease-proofing agents. But that's just an example of a pizza box.
Then we think about other types of food packaging that we bring into our lives like fast food wrappers, salad bowls, plastic containers, and even paper packaging like cereal boxes. All of these are potential sources of toxic chemicals that can impact our health.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, it is pretty concerning. My understanding of many of these chemicals is that some of them have been studied in lab settings and experimental settings, but the large number of them we just don't really know very much about what types of impacts they might have on human health at different exposure levels. Is that right?
Boma Brown-West: Right, and sometimes it takes many years to build up that level of understanding. The problem is that while we do that, we're consistently being exposed. For example, the PFAS chemicals I just mentioned; virtually every single American has PFAS in their bodies, and this is because this is a very ubiquitous group of chemicals that are used in packaging—in paper packaging, in plastic films, in plastic containers, and in other types of products.
We've been gaining the understanding and the research over time into the effects, into learning that they are persistent; they are bioaccumulative, meaning that they stay in the environment and build up over time in our bodies and in the bodies of other living things; and that they're linked to a host of health issues like developmental problems, cancer, and liver damage.
The issue is that it's not just one class of chemicals that's of concern and is ubiquitous in plastics or in other types of packaging. There are many others, including the class of chemicals called phthalates (which have a very funny spelling), and they're used directly in packaging materials and also in packaging inks, which can migrate through certain types of packaging materials. Phthalates have been linked to many reproductive developmental and endocrine-related health problems. When I say endocrine I mean our hormone system essentially, and those risks can be heightened at different stages of our life, so for example, when we're young children, or pregnant women.
Daniel Raimi: It's really mind-boggling how many potential risks are out there and how little we know about many of them. One of the ways that you and your colleagues at EDF have helped to try to help companies, and to a lesser extent the public—correct me if I'm wrong—but my sense is that this work is largely targeted towards companies, is to develop something called the Understanding Packaging Scorecard, which helps companies understand the various environmental and health risks that might be associated with different types of packaging products. Can you tell us a little bit more about this tool, and who is it designed for, and what it's designed to do?
Boma Brown-West: One of EDF's main strategies is to influence company behavior and help companies be more sustainable, and the Understanding Packaging Scorecard or the UP Scorecard is one of the recent ways that we've gone about doing that.
Essentially, today there is some awareness in industry around needing to utilize more sustainable packaging, but there are competing product claims like ‘compostable,’ ‘recyclable,’ ‘low carbon,’ ‘nontoxic.’ It's nearly impossible for companies to know which materials are truly safer and more sustainable and how to really balance those trade-offs. For example, choosing a material with a lower carbon footprint could result in using a material that actually contains more toxic chemicals, and that's really where the UP Scorecard comes in.
It's a first-of-its-kind tool that measures commonly used foodware—food packaging materials—with one yardstick to provide companies with the information that they need to make sustainable purchasing decisions. With the tool, they can compare different food or beverage container types against each other and choose the one that has the lowest environmental and health impacts.
We were really making sure to make this easy to use, but also comprehensive, and so the environmental impacts that are featured in the UP Scorecard include—or the impact areas, if you will—include climate, water use, plastic pollution, sustainable sourcing, recoverability, and then importantly, particularly for the work that I lead, chemicals of concern. It was really critical for our whole group to make sure that the chemicals of concern were included as one of the six critical impact areas within the UP Scorecard.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. It's such an interesting tool. I was saying to you, Boma, before we got started with this recording. that I was exploring some comparisons between different types of beverage containers. I just learned some really interesting stuff. For example, glass bottles appear to be substantially more damaging to the climate than PET bottles. I'm blanking on what PET stands for. I think it's basically a single-use plastic bottle, right?
Boma Brown-West: Right, right.
Daniel Raimi: These other scores for things like water usage and sourcing and chemicals of concern, there's just a whole lot to learn there, even for the interested individual. When we think about companies that are taking different approaches to packaging, I'm sure there's a wide variety of approaches that companies are taking in a diverse set of appetites to deal with this problem, let's say. But when you look across the landscape broadly, what's your view on how the industry is doing in terms of recognizing the problem and then acting on it?
Boma Brown-West: I do see some increasing energy when it comes to seeking out sustainable packaging. But as I mentioned before, I think a few things are at play where we don't see the accelerated momentum that we really need to see on this issue. Part of that is the confusion about what sustainable packaging really means and what elements of sustainability should take priority. And of course, cost is also an issue in terms of moving away from what a company already knows to more sustainable offerings that, in the long run, will minimize environmental and health impacts.
When you bring in that serious issue of toxic chemicals and packaging, there's even less understanding in the industry and less action. What we really are trying to do here with the UP Scorecard is to engage companies and build up that awareness about the environmental and health risks associated with packaging to really get companies setting those time-based goals to utilize sustainable packaging, to eliminate toxic chemicals in packaging. It was very helpful that this was really stakeholder collaboration to put this together. There are key companies there like Compass and Sodexo helping to develop this scorecard, in addition to EDF and other NGOs that care about these issues.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's really interesting. As a consumer who cares about this kind of thing, it's often really hard for me to understand what on earth is going on with these different types of packaging and how sustainable the different options are. The UP Scorecard definitely helps to do that, but I imagine that even with private sector action, there might be a useful role for governments to play here. What are some levers that are available to policymakers, maybe here in the United States at the federal level or other levels of government, that you think might be fruitful?
Boma Brown-West: Yeah, there's definitely a role for policymakers. I think, from our point of view at EDF, we see that a sustainable future requires strong leadership from policymakers, and strong leadership from companies. You really do need both.
On the issue of packaging, we do need more tools, more incentives, more of a push for driving down our packaging waste and pushing forward packaging solutions that have lower environmental impacts and lower health impacts. On the health front, what we need policymakers to do is to press the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to improve its oversight of the food system. It's all about what goes into the food, but also food contact articles.
Packaging is part of that. Right now, the agency doesn't have the tools or the authority to do its job, and we as consumers suffer the consequences. So the first thing there is that we need the FDA to really close loopholes that allow companies to decide on the safety of chemicals in food contact materials without the FDA's review or the public's knowledge. And we need them to ensure that existing chemicals in the system are safe. There are thousands of chemicals that were approved by the FDA decades ago back when we had far less understanding about the impacts on human health. In today's world, what we need is the FDA to recognize what the latest science is telling us and reassess the safety of existing chemicals, and also to apply that latest science to the review of incoming chemicals.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. I know that California has been ahead of the curve perhaps, or at least more aggressive, in regulating some chemical products when it comes to consumer products. I think there are elements in furniture and maybe other products that California has additional standards for. Is that federalist role where certain states take the lead something that you think there might be an interest in, in states like California, or elsewhere?
Boma Brown-West: Yeah, there's certainly been action happening at the state level when it comes to packaging to help fill the void at the federal level. Some key states that are really trying to put legislation in place for their citizens include Washington state, Maine, and as you mentioned, California. In fact, recently, California passed some new legislation with respect to the famous PFAS chemicals that I mentioned earlier in our call. But all of that is to say that state-level action is helpful in terms of bringing these issues to the fore, demonstrating different ways to tackle them, but at the end of the day we need—especially if I'm talking about the United States—we need uniform federal action that puts public health first.
Daniel Raimi: Right, yeah of course, even the nature of the supply chains being national and international, that federal-level coordination really does seem to make sense.
Boma Brown-West: Absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: So how about at the personal level? I mentioned myself as a moderately informed consumer earlier—we had pizza this weekend with my kid, and we had the pizza box, and I did not think about the chemicals that might have been lining that pizza box. What can listeners do to reduce the environmental risks that the products they consume pose and reduce the risk to themselves and their families?
Boma Brown-West: Yeah, I mean, that's a great question, and I definitely get that often from my own friends and family. And as you mentioned with the pizza box, you shouldn't have to start thinking about that so closely or spend time researching—"What are the products? What are the packaging and the products that are safe for me to bring into my home to be around my family?”—because at the end of the day, this is a systems issue, and we need companies and governments to really step up and take action to use their leverage here.
Having said that, we as consumers do have the power of our voice and of our wallet. We can hold companies accountable by supporting those that are setting public and ambitious time-bound goals to create and use safer and more sustainable packaging, and importantly, the ones that are following through on those commitments. But we can also support policymakers who value public health and the environment, and once again, are demonstrating that in their actions.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, for sure. When people ask me similar questions about climate change, I give them almost exactly the same answer that you just gave there, which is it's a systemic issue and we can play a role, but really, voting and being active with our voices is maybe the most important thing we can do.
I always wonder about the plastic straw and paper straw thing. Is this something that you have an opinion on, the value of using paper straws relative to plastic straws?
Boma Brown-West: When it comes to packaging, a lot of the attention is on plastic packaging because it's very easy to see it in our environment when it hasn't been disposed of, when it's not getting recycled and everything, and it is a huge issue.
But there are many things that we also have to take into account with paper packaging, or many things that companies and others have to consider. For example, when I was earlier talking about the issue of chemicals, chemical additives and other contaminants lurking in our packaging, their potential for impact on us doesn't stop after that first use. The issue can continue as we increase recycling of these materials—we desperately need to be reusing materials, we need to be building up that circular economy—but chemicals like PFAS, which are also known as the forever chemicals, don't go away. They don't go away when you're recycling paper, and they have been detected in paper composting.
All of that is to say that no matter what type of material we're using for packaging, we need attention on what we are doing about the use and the further use of that material, and also what are the chemicals that we have introduced with that material all the way from the design stage. We need more attention on that, whether we're talking about paper packaging, or we're talking about plastic packaging. It's just a universal framing that we need. When I say really talking about packaging developers, packaging suppliers, and the brands who use them, we should be asking “What are you specifying when you talk about the chemicals that are allowed to be used in these? What are you specifying in terms of the second life, if you will, of this material?” Those are important questions no matter whether we're talking about paper or plastic.
Daniel Raimi: That's such a great answer and such a really nice note to end on, just helping us get a more nuanced view of the tradeoffs that are involved in these issues and really understanding how complex they are.
So, Boma Brown-West from the Environmental Defense Fund, thank you again so much for coming on the show. Let's go now to our last question that we ask all of our guests—to give us a recommendation of something they've read or watched or heard lately that's related to the environment, even if it's a little tangential, that they think is great.
I'll start with a book that I'm in the middle of, and we're going to interview the author in a few weeks. The book is called Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town by Colin Jerolmack. I'm not sure if I'm saying his last name right, we'll find out in a couple weeks. He's a professor at New York University, and he’s spent a long time living in the town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which is in Lycoming County, where there's been a whole lot of shale gas development over roughly the last 10 years.
Having spent a lot of time in that part of the country myself, I just really appreciate this book. It gives such a wonderful, nuanced view of people's lives and how they've been affected in very real ways by the shale gas boom that's been happening in Pennsylvania. So, if you're interested in oil and gas, I think you'll really enjoy this book, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell. But how about you, Boma, what's on the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack?
Boma Brown-West: Well, first I'm going to write that title down because it sounds very interesting, so thank you for that. I have two recommendations. One is a bit sobering. It's a book I read last year called the American War by Omar El Akkad, and it's essentially about the United States later in this century and how completely different our country has become because of climate change. There are wars and things that you learn about in the book, but essentially, the landscape has been changed by ensuing wars that were really propagated by a changing climate and what that did to life. The book follows one woman's experience of what it's like to grow up and live in a type of society like that. It was a pretty sobering book, so I will warn people, but it was also a reminder that some of the elements that are in the book are already happening in some parts of the world, there are already lives and societies that have been upended by climate change, and what this book does is provide a bit of a story about what that can do to people and their sense of normalcy and of what life is, so I recommend that book.
And then for a more upbeat recommendation, I recommend the Degrees podcast through EDF, which is now in its second season. This one features in-depth and up-close conversations with changemakers who are using their careers to make a meaningful impact on the world. It's a big variety. There are storytellers that are interviewed, songwriters, city leaders, and former White House staffers I've interviewed—It's just a wide range of people. It provides an interesting mix of the different ways that you can be a changemaker in the world.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, those are great recommendations. I loved American War, which I read a while back, and I've listened to some episodes of the Degrees podcast as well and really appreciate that recommendation too.
So along with that, we really appreciate you, Boma Brown-West, for coming on the show and helping us understand all of these fascinating and complex issues around packaging and also your work to help make us healthier and the environment more sustainable. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Boma Brown-West: Thank you, this has been great.
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RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.