Is recycled plastic safe for food packaging? EU seems to think so

A file picture dated 05 May 2004 shows a pile of plastic bottles at a garbage dump in Chiang Mai province, northern Thailand. [EPA/RUNGROJ YONGRIT]

The European Commission is preparing to fast-track approval of 140 recycling processes for use in food and drinks packaging, despite warnings that second-hand plastics risk containing toxic chemicals dangerous for human health.

In its January 2018 plastics strategy, the Commission announced it would “swiftly finalise the authorisation procedure for over a hundred safe recycling processes” used in so-called food-contact applications.

Once approved at EU level, the materials coming out of these recycling processes will be authorised in the manufacturing of food and drinks containers such as PET plastic bottles used for Coca-Cola and other beverages that consumers drink in large quantities across Europe.

The EU executive is now preparing to fast-track draft decisions for the approval of 140 new plastic recycling processes for which the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has already given a favourable or inconclusive opinion.

“Target timeline for adoption will be the end of 2018,” said Anca Paduraru, a spokesperson for the European Commission in Brussels.

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.

Opaque procedure

However, the decision-making process is being conducted using an opaque expert committee system known as ‘comitology’ – the same that was used for the approval of glyphosate, the controversial weedkiller manufactured by Monsanto.

And once the experts in the committee will have taken their decision – sometime in the autumn – there will be no possibility for the European Parliament to amend it – it will immediately become law, Paduraru told EURACTIV.

This is attracting concern from environmental groups, which have warned about the risk of recycled plastics contaminated with toxic chemicals entering the food chain.

“There will always be a risk,” said Floriana Cimmarusti, the director general of Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE), a non-profit organisation. “Many types of plastics absorb chemicals during waste management, and it is very difficult during recycling to eliminate them,” she explained. “So, the contamination risk with recycled plastic is clearly higher than with virgin plastic,” she told EURACTIV in an interview.

At worst, Cimmarusti said highly toxic chemicals such as flame retardants found in electric equipment could find their way into food packaging.

“There are 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,” she said.

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

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.

EFSA confident

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) acknowledges that recycled plastics are a sensitive issue in food packaging, which requires special attention.

“From EFSA’s point of view, we have to guarantee safety, also when recycled plastics are used,” said Bernard Url, the Executive Director of the Parma-based agency. “There are issues with contaminants that stem from former use of plastics – so-called legacy chemicals,” he told EURACTIV.

And when dealing with food-contact materials, the level of scrutiny is understandably higher. “There are factors like how much permeation happens when the plastics come in contact with food. So, we have to make sure that the migration limits are respected,” Url explained.

However, EFSA is confident that the recycling processes due to be adopted at EU level are risk-free. The agency has already adopted opinions on all 140 recycling processes and concluded that 137 of them were safe. The risk assessments on the remaining 3 were inconclusive, EFSA officials told this website.

Commission efforts to build trust in food safety receives mixed reviews

The European Commission presented on 11 April a proposal aiming to restore public trust in scientific studies on food safety, suggesting more transparency in decision-making and greater involvement of member states’ experts.  

But environmentalists are worried that EFSA’s risk assessment procedure doesn’t give sufficient guarantees because it focuses on the start of the recycling process, not on the finished product that comes out at the end of it.

Moreover, important parts of the application dossiers submitted to EFSA are kept confidential for commercial reasons, a situation Cimmarusti said is reminiscent of the glyphosate-approval saga.

“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,” she pointed out.

Crucially, she said there is no independent scientific review of the data submitted by industry applicants. “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,” Cimmarusti said.

Legacy chemicals

At issue are so-called “legacy chemicals” – toxic substances that are now banned but which can re-re-enter the supply chain when old plastics are recycled.

How to deal with them has become a major headache for waste management companies such as Suez and Velia, which are represented at EU level by FEAD, a trade organisation.

“As long as hazardous substances can be placed on the market legally by manufacturers, recycling companies will have to deal with them at some point. The challenge is, therefore, to determine how to deal with ‘legacy substances’ in order to achieve toxic-free material cycles,” said FEAD, the association representing the European waste management industry.

However, FEAD believes the problem can be managed and has even issued a statement calling on EU regulators to “make it mandatory to produce beverage containers with at least 25% of recycled plastics by 2025.

“Yes, we are confident that we can deliver what the manufacturers and plastics converters need to reach mandatory recycled content in packaging,” said Aurore Mourette, a policy officer at FEAD.

Make use of recycled plastic mandatory, EU told

Europe’s market for recycled plastics will never pick up unless regulators make a decisive move and impose a minimum amount of recycled materials into new products, said a wide coalition of businesses, local authorities and environmental NGOs.

No political scrutiny

Still, environmentalists believe the EU approval process is being rushed through, without the necessary level of political oversight.

“The European Parliament should be involved so consumer’s health can be properly protected,” Cimmarusti said. “I think it’s a bit too fast to adopt 140 methodologies in such a short time.”

But despite the sensitivity of the matter, the decision-making process chosen by the Commission won’t leave any room for high-level political scrutiny, the EU executive said.

“The target date for preparing the approximately 140 draft decisions at a technical level” was due before the summer, said Anca Paduraru, the Commission spokesperson.

“Thereafter, all of them need to be presented to the same PAFF Committee for a vote” scheduled in the autumn, she said, referring to the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, which is made up of experts designated by all EU member states.

Once voted on in the committee, the draft decisions will be adopted under the examination procedure, Paduraru continued. “That means following a positive vote in the PAFF there is no submission and standstill period for Council and European Parliament but direct adoption by the Commission,” she told EURACTIV.

EU expert committees have come under fire because of their opaque decision-making process. It was the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed which gave the authorisation to renew the licence of glyphosate, the weedkiller developed by Monsanto.

EFSA boss: EU food law overhaul ‘a big step towards transparency’

The European Commission has learned its lesson from the glyphosate controversy and is coming forward with “bold proposals” on transparency, says Bernhard Url. The raw data of all industry-funded studies related to pesticides will be made publicly available under Commission plans, he told EURACTIV in an interview.

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