The European Commission will soon decide whether or not to allow the use of recycled plastics in food packaging, although some suggest it could endanger consumer health. EURACTIV UK reports.
Public consultation on a proposal to amend the EU regulation on recycled plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with food ended on 10 January 2022.
Generally reserved for experts or lobbyists only, the consultation is somewhat political and sheds additional light on the Commission, which is currently working on revising the regulation.
As part of the new Circular Economy Action Plan, the Commission plans to introduce a requirement that plastic food packaging must be made from 30% recycled material by 2030.
“The new regulation will aim to harmonize the requirements for the type of waste that can be used for such recycling”, such as quality control during waste collection, the use of appropriate recycling technologies or the registration of all recycling facilities, a Commission official said. EURACTIV.
The main plastic material used to make packaging is polyethylene terephthalate, called PET. It is said to be “recycled” when part of its manufacture is made from used plastics.
Recycled plastic can be made in two ways: either mechanically, by crushing, washing, decontaminating the plastic and then pressurizing it to remove harmful substances; or chemically, by depolymerizing, purifying and repolymerizing the plastic.
For years, sorting instructions have made it possible to collect plastics, thus creating valuable reserves of raw material for manufacturers of recycled PET.
“By 2022, in Europe, 10 countries will offer the plastic deposit,” Christian Crépet, CEO of Petcore-Europe, a trade association that promotes the collection, sorting and recycling of plastic bottles, told EURACTIV. “By 2025, 11 more countries will move in this direction,” he added.
Proponents of recycled PET claim it performs as well as virgin PET and, because it is part of the circular economy and requires less CO2 to produce, it is also more environmentally friendly .
Waiting for the green light
With regulations on the recycling of food contact materials due to be amended soon, recycled PET could be used as food packaging if it is deemed safe.
However, according to Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE), an NGO which focuses on food safety, a framework regulation now requires food packaging to be manufactured in such a way that “they do not transfer their constituents into the food in quantities which may be harmful”. to human health”.
EFSA, the European food safety agency, has examined the safety of recycled PET in several of its opinions which constitute a point of reference for the Commission.
Among other things, EFSA looked at the safety of applications for the use of recycled plastics, the quality of raw materials, the effectiveness of the plastic decontamination process and the intended use of recycled plastic.
“The European Food Safety Authority has published favorable scientific opinions on nearly 200 PET recycling processes,” a Commission official said.
An EFSA official told EURACTIV that “many of the processes that EFSA has received requests for are very similar, using the same technology.”
To prevent EFSA from evaluating many similar processes in the future, “the new regulation will distinguish between appropriate recycling technologies, which must first be established, recycling processes that use these technologies and must be authorised, and recycling facilities (…) which must be registered and controlled by the competent authorities of the Member States”, added the official.
EFSA’s opinion on recycled PET will be used by the Commission to revise the regulation on food packaging.
This revision is of strategic importance for the plastics industry.
The green light from EFSA is eagerly awaited by 35 recycling sites in Europe to ensure that their recycled PET – which represents a total of 600,000 tonnes of recycled material – can be used in food packaging, Petcore’s Crépet said. -Europe.
Dangers of recycled PET
Some, however, have warned of the dangers that recycled PET can pose if it comes into contact with food, especially from the chemicals in the plastic.
In a submission to the Food Contact Materials Regulation Review dated January 21, 2021, SAFE said:
“A large percentage of recycled plastics do not comply with food packaging regulations,” SAFE said in a statement on January 21, 2021 regarding the revision of European regulations on materials in contact with food.
“A study was conducted in Brazil and Spain by the universities of Campinas, São Paulo and Zaragoza on PET packaging (…). The tests detected the migration of residual non-volatile and inorganic compounds (i.e. silicon, calcium, sodium, iron, magnesium, aluminum, zinc), which are unauthorized contaminants by Brazilian and European regulations.
SAFE also pointed to several shortcomings in the European Commission’s draft legislation on recycled PET, noting that it paid too little attention to end products and too much to ‘starting’ substances and the recycling process.
“Article 8 on “post-processing and use of recycled plastic materials and articles” does not adequately address the complexity of unintentionally added substances, including external contaminants, as well as reaction by-products and degradation occurring during manufacture, use, waste management and recycling, which are present in the final materials and articles,” added SAFE.
During the manufacture of recycled plastics, the “starting” chemicals are transformed into new chemicals for which the assessment would be insufficient.
SAFE also noted that the current safety threshold of chemicals that can migrate from packaging into food needs to be reassessed.
“Scientists consider it necessary to review the way the safety of migrating chemicals is assessed, based on current scientific knowledge,” SAFE explained.
Jane Muncke, CEO and Scientific Director of the Food Packaging Forum, agrees.
“We know that certain chemicals, such as endocrine disruptors, have very low thresholds of effect that cannot be measured in practice. So we have to completely change the way we assess the safety of these types of chemicals,” she told EURACTIV.
“We have to assume that there are no safe levels for carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. In other words, there are no thresholds,” she added.
The European Commission has already taken note of these warnings. If Brussels prioritizes safety, it will need to strike a balance between the precautionary principle and the EU’s recycling targets, which it wants to raise.
The revision of the bloc’s regulation on plastics in contact with foodstuffs will have to be in line with its directive on single-use plastics, the upcoming initiative on sustainable products and the upcoming revision of the directive on packaging and waste. packaging.
Europeans currently produce 25 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, of which only 30% is collected for recycling. One of Europe’s strategies is to collect, recycle and reuse more of these plastics.
Whether or not recycled plastic materials can be reused for food packaging will be decided in July when the revised text is adopted.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]