How to safely recycle plastic waste into new food packaging

How to safely recycle plastic waste into new food packaging

A large amount of plastic produced for packaging is used for storing food. Considering both the waste generated and the resources expended to produce the packaging, it is common sense to recycle some of this plastic for new food packaging. Furthermore, the circular economy is a focal point in the European Union, and in 2025, Extended Producer Responsibility Should result in more recycling.

There are strict rules for materials — including plastics — that come into contact with food. As such, there are some obstacles to overcome before recycled plastics are suitable for reuse as a food contact material.

An important hurdle is the disposal stage where food plastic packaging is mixed with plastics for multiple uses. This may contaminate the plastic and affect the manufacturing of regenerated plastics. If the packaging, for example, has been used to contain detergents or personal care products, the plastic may not be suitable for reuse as a food contact material.

Next, you need to consider the amount of potential chemical substances in plastic packaging. Swiss researchers have identified 906 different substances that may appear in plastic packaging. Of these 906 substances:

  • 63 Substances Hazardous to Health
  • 68 Substances Hazardous to the Environment
  • 7 substances are included in the European Union’s list of substances that are very persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBT) or very persistent and very bioaccumulative (VPVB).
  • 15 Substances Are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)

However, plastic packaging can contain more than 3,370+ other substances.

But knowing the challenges is also the way to overcome them.

legal requirements

In the EU, regenerated plastics must comply the access chemical regulation. This means that regenerated plastics must not contain substances that are on the authorization list, and thus subject to authorization approval for use, or substances classified as a substance of very high concern (SVHC). SVHCs are substances that are included in the access candidate list and are likely to face restrictions on use in the future.

If the plastic is intended for food contact, the recycling process must be approved by the EU Commission after evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and proven efficiency in removing contaminants.

Documentation of the recycling process

For food contact purposes, the recycling process must be fully documented. Producers are required to keep a close eye on waste sources and subject their processes to a challenge test. The recycling process must be pre-approved by the European Commission. So far, EFSA has favorably evaluated some 100 recycling processes, but so far, the commission has not published its list of approved processes.

More tips for easy reuse of plastic

To facilitate the sorting of waste and advance the manufacture of recyclable plastics, producers are recommended to:

  • Use only one material for food packaging, such as PET, PP or PE
  • Avoid glues and adhesives, which are difficult to get rid of and contribute to contamination.
  • don’t use color
  • Avoid individual components in packaging

Although recycling for food contact still needs development and regulation is not fully implemented, innovative producers are already using recycled plastics for food packaging. The most common form of reused plastic is to apply a layer of co-extruded virgin PET to act as a barrier between the food and the reused plastic packaging.

In DHI, we can predict which chemical substances can cause problems. We assist in the process of developing recyclable materials by modeling recyclable materials and calculating the migration of substances in recyclables. In addition to food, it also includes the migration of substances from recycled plastics into water, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and the environment during their intended use.

Hayley Bouchard Boyd, senior toxicologist

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