Plastics Recycling for Food-Contact Materials

26 Apr
Plastic Food Packaging

Food Safety

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According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), we produce about 400 million tons of plastic waste every year globally. Approximately 36% of that plastic is used in packaging, including single-use plastic products for food and beverage containers.

The European Commission estimates that approximately 50% of plastic packaging in the European Union (EU) is used for the food and beverage industry. In the U.S., food packaging comprises approximately two-thirds of all packaging material produced, and correspondingly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites that food and food packaging materials make up almost half of all municipal solid waste. 

Food packaging is used to help make food clean, safe, transportable, and shelf stable. Unfortunately, most of it is single use and is not recycled or reused. But there is a growing trend throughout the U.S., as well as in Canada and the EU, to increase the use of post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials in packaging products, including plastic.  

Regulatory Background

California enacted the first minimum recycled content laws in the U.S. in 1990 for fiberglass, glass containers, plastic containers, and plastic trash bags. Fast forward to late 2023, and the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) indicates that seven states are currently in various stages of developing and/or implementing state minimum recycled content laws, including California, Maine, Washington, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and New York.

In general, these laws establish incremental minimum recycled content requirements for various packaging materials and associated timelines for compliance. Impacted products include plastic beverage bottles, plastic carryout bags, trash bags, household cleaning and personal care products, and others. Some laws allow for averaging recycled content across a company’s covered products portfolio to meet requirements. Some states require third-party certification to ensure accountability.

The New Jersey Recycled Content Law, which recently came into effect on January 18, 2024, is considered one of the most ambitious recycled content laws to date, as it goes beyond traditional rules to cover rigid plastic containers.

Given current and potential upcoming legislation, manufacturers and retailers alike must be aware of which products are covered by recycled content standards, as there may be restrictions on the use and sale of products that do not comply.

Plastic Recycling for Food-Contact Materials

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are only a few major varieties of plastic that meet the Agency’s guidelines for safe contact with food and that can be considered food grade and FDA-compliant. To be FDA-compliant, packaging must be able to withstand whatever environment it will be used in (e.g., extremely hot oven for cooking, freezing temperatures, and cleaning and sanitization). The packaging material must also be compatible with the type of food it will be in contact with and must not leach any chemicals if the food is acidic or has high moisture content.

The following plastics are generally considered safe for food:

  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE), the most common household plastic, is used to make beverage bottles, butter containers, cereal box liners, and thicker food storage buckets. FDA evaluates the use of recycled HDPE on a case-by-case basis, as it can become unsafe in the recycling process.
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is similar to HDPE but less rigid. It is used for products like squeeze bottles, plastic wrap, six-pack rings, etc. While LDPE is chemical-resistant and does not leach, recycled LDPE is not deemed safe for food contact.
  • Polycarbonate resin (PCR) has presented some concerns about the presence of bisphenol A (BPA); however, FDA studies conclude that intake from BPA in plastic is very low and does not have apparent negative health impacts.
  • Polypropylene (PP) is most often used for single-serve containers (e.g., yogurt, cottage cheese) and reusable food storage containers. It is microwave safe and nonvolatile.
  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is used to make any plastic jars and beverage containers (e.g., 2-liter bottles, peanut butter jars, salad dressing containers, etc.). It repels microorganisms and does not corrode.

While many of these plastics are only FDA-compliant and food safe in their unrecycled state, recycled PET is an FDA-approved plastic for food contact. Most plastic food packaging that is not made of PET cannot be recycled into new food packaging due to missing processes (i.e., waste collection, separation, decontamination) and other safety concerns. These other types of plastic food packaging are typically only downcycled or not recycled at all.

Recycling Responsibilities

Manufacturers of food-contact packaging made from recycled plastic are responsible for ensuring that recycled material meets the same specifications for virgin material, as outlined in 21 CFR parts 174-179. The regulations state that any substance used as a component of articles that contact food shall be of a purity suitable for its intended use.

Because recycled food-contact materials have content that is recovered from waste, it may be contaminated with substances originating from previous use or other waste—and that contamination may end up in our food and be harmful to human health. The FDA cites the following main safety concerns with the use of PCR plastic materials in food contact articles:

  • Contaminants from the PCR material may appear in the final food-contact product made from the recycled material.
  • PCR material that may not be regulated for food-contact use may be incorporated into food-contact material.
  • Adjuvants in the PCR plastic may not comply with the regulations for food contact use.

Although not required by law, recyclers of plastic intended for food-contact use may submit information on their recycling process to FDA for evaluation. In turn, FDA will consider each proposed use of recycled plastic on a case-by-case basis and issue informal advice as to whether the recycling process is expected to produce food grade, FDA-compliant PCR plastic based on the following:

  • Complete description of the recycling process, including a description of the source of the PCR plastic, any source controls in place, and a description of steps taken to ensure the recyclable plastic is not contaminated at any point.
  • Results of any tests performed to show that the recycling process removes possible incidental contaminants.
  • Description of the proposed conditions of use of the plastic (e.g., temperature, type of food, duration of contact, repeated or single use).

Recycling plastic food packaging is widely seen as an opportunity to reduce our environmental impacts across the globe. While plastic food packaging recycling is limited extent due to material properties, waste management processes, and chemical safety concerns, legislation is pushing recycling forward where it is safe. Given this, manufacturers and retailers must be aware of which products are covered by recycled content standards and make plans to meet established timelines for minimum recycled content requirements to avoid restrictions on the use and sale of products that do not comply.

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