Food safety activist: ‘There will always be a risk’ with recycled plastics

"Clearly, there is not enough research to tell us whether recycled plastics are dangerous or not for consumers," says Floriana Cimmarusti. [Shutterstock]

The risk of toxic substances contaminating food already exists with virgin plastic, so it will only be higher with recycled packaging coming from old plastics that may contain banned chemicals, says Floriana Cimmarusti.

Floriana Cimmarusti is Secretary General of Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE), a non-profit organisation based in Brussels. She spoke with EURACTIV’s energy and environment editor, Frédéric Simon.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Some 140 new recycling processes will soon be formally authorised for use in ‘food contact applications’ such as packaging
  • Upcoming EU decision will protect companies against potential litigation
  • Risk assessment procedure used by EFSA doesn’t give full certainty about safety
  • European Parliament should be involved so consumer’s health can be properly protected

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Companies like Tetra Pak have stayed away from using recycled plastics in food packaging until now because of safety concerns. Now, they seem ready to reconsider their stance ahead of an EU decision to authorise more than 100 “safe” recycling processes for food contact applications. So, what’s changed? Have recycling processes now become safer?

No, it’s just that those recycling processes will now be formally authorised for use in food contact applications. So Tetra Pak and other companies will be legally protected if they use recycled plastics which have been produced using those authorised processes.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) already gave a favourable opinion on those recycling processes, so as soon as the European Commission will approve them using the comitology procedure, it will become law. Legally speaking, food packaging companies will then be able to use as much recycled plastic as they want. And in case something goes wrong, they will be protected by EU law against potential litigation by consumer groups.

So I think the reason is a legal one. Without such kind of clearance, it would be very risky for companies to use recycled plastics.

Food packaging companies have no interest in seeing a scandal erupting about the safety of their products. So they must have confidence that at least some of these processes are indeed safe.

Yes, I’m sure they believe the system is safe. But as soon as the EU approves the process, they won’t face any legal risk, which is a key point for them.

Safety first: Food packers shun recycled plastics, for now

Tetra Pak, the iconic Swedish maker of beverage cartons, is currently staying away from using recycled plastics in the inside lining of its packages – the most sensitive bit that comes in contact with drinks. But this could all change under EU proposals due this year.

Recycled plastics can come from very different places and contamination can happen very easily, for example when people mix up the trash that goes into their recycling bags. Can a standard process approved at EU level actually guarantee that no contamination takes place?

PET is the one kind of plastic which is easiest to clean up in the recycling process, and therefore considered the safest after recycling.

But there will always be a risk. Many types of plastics absorb chemicals during waste management, and it is very difficult during recycling to eliminate them. For instance, it is a challenge to introduce sorting systems that separate food contact materials from non-food grade plastics. The risk of toxic substances contaminating food is already there with virgin plastic, so it will only be higher with recycled plastics made of old plastics which may contain extremely toxic and banned chemicals.

For example, the levels of oligomers (unintentional byproducts of plastic that migrate into food) are higher in recycled plastic than in virgin plastic. Some tests have also shown that levels of migration into vegetable oils are higher with recycled plastic than with virgin plastic.

Moreover, a lot of non-identified contaminants have been found in recycled plastics which we do not find in virgin plastic. Those contaminants come from cross-contamination during waste management.

Finally, a lot of additives are found in recycled PET which are absent in virgin plastics or present in much lower quantities, and those additives have been proven to have higher migration rates in recycled plastics than in virgin plastics.

So, the contamination risk with recycled plastic is clearly higher than with virgin plastic.

The European Commission is preparing to approve 140 new recycling processes for use in food contact applications like packaging. EFSA has already given a favourable opinion to all but 3 of them, where the assessment was inconclusive. What do you know about these 140 recycling processes? Are they really safe?

I don’t think the risk assessment procedure used by EFSA can give us full certainty that recycled plastics are safe.

As I said, many types of plastics absorb chemicals during use and waste management, which are difficult to remove during recycling. Furthermore, what’s important to remember is that EFSA’s risk assessment focusses on the start of the recycling process, not on the finished product that comes out at the end of it. So there is no serious analysis of the chemicals at the end of each recycling process. And this data is currently lacking. Moreover, cumulative exposure is not taken into account by EFSA when exposures are estimated.

Now, most of those recycling processes concern PET plastic, which is one of the few exceptions that allow a rather thorough cleaning during recycling. However, even in PET, the polymers in plastics often degrade during use and recycling. And this can result in oligomers that may migrate into food.

There are also some examples showing the deliberate recycling of non-food plastics into new food packaging. Brominated flame retardants have regularly been found in plastic items intended for food contact materials, which is a clear indication that waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) has been used in the process. And this is clearly not allowed. So better enforcement is needed to improve this situation.

Has there been a sufficient amount of scrutiny on these 140 recycling processes cleared by EFSA?

No, because of EFSA’s questionable risk assessment procedure.  We should not forget that some of the data submitted to EFSA by applicant companies are trade secrets covered by confidentiality, like for glyphosate.

In the case of glyphosate, part of the data – the important one – was redacted from the text and was showing in black. I’m afraid that the same is happening with those recycling processes. So we cannot read all the data. And there is no scientific review of the data submitted done by an independent laboratory.

Clearly, there is not enough research to tell us whether recycled plastics are dangerous or not for consumers. So I think it’s a bit too fast to adopt 140 methodologies in such a short time. We just don’t know how much chemicals will still be there at the end of the recycling process and which kind of migration will happen in food.

The future of packaging: It’s all about recyclability

The plastics industry is changing fast, and the way our food and products are packaged could look totally different in just a few years.

In an ideal world, how would a safe recycling process for food contact applications work?

An independent research centre should conduct the risk assessment. And the data required for this assessment should also be collected by an independent organisation, not by the industry applying for the approval of the recycling process.

An independent laboratory should do the research, and the applicant companies could pay for it. We shouldn’t just trust the research done by companies, which is what is currently happening.

We believe there should be no trade-off between consumer safety and economic profit.

The Commission wants to use a fast-track approval procedure for those 140 recycling processes, meaning the Parliament and Council will not have the opportunity to scrutinise the decisions before they are adopted. How does that make you feel?

We do not feel comfortable about this. The European Parliament should be involved so consumer’s health can be properly protected. It’s really a pity that the Parliament will have no say on this.

Plastic is light and cheap, which makes it a convenient option for food packaging. So what are the green alternatives?

One alternative could be glass because it causes no migration of chemicals into food. With aluminium or plastic, there is. Of course, it wouldn’t be practical to pack everything in glass – it’s heavy, it can break, etc. And the problem with bio-based alternatives is that they are not strong enough.

But there are some alternatives. We’re doing a campaign with restaurants and bars to encourage them to use alternatives to single-use plastic cups for coffee and tea, for example bamboo. When you put something warm into plastic, there is more migration of chemicals so the campaign raises awareness about alternatives.

You can also use reusable steel containers or try to sell as many products as possible in bulk. More and more shops sell products like pasta, nuts, sweets or rice in bulks that customers put in cotton bags which they bring to do their groceries.

Commission targets end to throwaway plastic culture

The European Commission presented its long-awaited marine-litter-busting proposal on single-use plastics on Monday (28 May). The first legislative proposal from the Plastics Strategy aims to help the EU clean up the continent’s beaches and waterways.

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