Safety first: Food packers shun recycled plastics, for now

Environmental activists are worried that "legacy" toxic substances will find their way into food contact materials, despite being highly regulated. [Tetra Pak]

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.

“While we see the use of recycled plastics as a great opportunity to further reduce the environmental impact of our packaging, food safety is the cornerstone of our industry and cannot be compromised.”

Coming from Dennis Jönsson, the President and CEO of Tetra Pak, those words are hardly surprising.

“At the moment there are no food-grade recycled plastics available for the plastics we currently use in our packages,” Jönsson told EURACTIV in e-mailed comments, saying Tetra Pak currently does not use any recycled plastic in food contact materials.

But the door is now open for that to change. Tetra Pak, he said, is looking forward to working with EU authorities to develop standards in this area in order to “make this happen soon”.

Safety guarantees, he continued, “can only be made available through EU measures permitting the safe use of recycled plastics in contact with food”.

“We would therefore welcome steps by the European Commission to enable this to happen and would be happy to contribute our expertise to this process.”

Katainen: ‘We need to change the fundamentals of the plastics market’

The European Commission is looking at different types of fiscal incentives to increase demand for recycled plastics, which are currently more costly than virgin materials, Jyrki Katainen told EURACTIV in an interview.

Recycled plastics in food-contact applications

The reason behind Tetra Pak’s move is a recent proposal from the Commission. In January, the EU’s executive published a policy roadmap – A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy – which calls on companies to increase the take-up of recycled materials in their production processes.

The centrepiece is a call on industry to ensure that by 2025 ten million tonnes of recycled plastics find their way into new products on the EU market. Interested parties have until 30 June 2018 to submit their pledges.

And the Commission wants to leave no stone unturned, including measures to promote recycled plastics in food packaging.

“As regards the use of recycled plastics in food-contact applications (e.g. beverage bottles), the objective is to prioritise high food safety standards, while also providing a clear and reliable framework for investment and innovation in circular economy solutions,” the EU executive said in its plastics strategy.

“With this in mind, the Commission is committed to swiftly finalise the authorisation procedures for over a hundred safe recycling processes,” it indicated, saying this will be done in 2018 in cooperation with the Parma-based European Food Safety Agency (EFSA).

The assessment will look into whether safe use of recycled plastic materials can be envisaged in food, “for instance through better characterisation of contaminants” and the introduction of a “monitoring system,” the EU executive said.

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.

Risk of contamination

For environmentalists, this could be a step too far. In food, the risk of “contamination” from old products containing legacy chemicals that are now banned is simply too high, said Tatiana Santos, Senior Policy Officer on Chemicals at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Yet, this is precisely what might happen with the upcoming revision of EU rules, she warned. “In order to promote recycling, there is now a debate in Europe on whether ‘contamination’ of products” should be tolerated when they come from recycled plastics, she said.

This would in effect mean lowering existing safety standards, “allowing more contamination when the product comes from secondary materials compared to standards that are applied on new materials,” she warned.

Toxic substances such as flame retardants, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and hormone-bending phthalates have recently been found in pizza boxes or kitchen utensils, despite being highly regulated, she said.

“So, for sure, consumers will be exposed, including pregnant women and children,” she told EURACTIV. “This is just an unacceptable situation.”

Of course, environmentalists are enthusiastic about recycling, Santos continued. “But when these products contain toxics, then the discussion should be different,” she said, warning that “this is damaging the reputation of the whole recycling industry.”

No compromise on safety, says Brussels…

The European Commission, for its part, assures it won’t lower the guard on food safety.

“On food contact materials, the standards are much stricter than anywhere else. So it’s very clear that it’s not something we will compromise on,” said Sarah Nelen, a senior official in charge of waste management and secondary raw materials at the Commission.

“At the same time, we are reconsidering the rules as part of the plastic strategy action plan,” she added in reference to plans to review rules on food contact materials.

“But of course, health issues prevail in the area of food safety. After all, a plastic food wrap is quite different from a car bumper!,” she told EURACTIV in an interview.

EU official: ‘Growing consensus’ for fresh plastic recycling laws

The European Commission is looking at targets for recycled plastics into new products as a way to boost demand for secondary raw materials, according to a senior EU official involved in drafting upcoming laws on recycling.

…But “trade-offs” possible on legacy substances

Nelen did acknowledge however that tough decisions will have to be made on so-called “legacy substances”  – or products from the past that still contain hazardous substances that are no longer allowed.

“But of course, that is a legacy of the past where you have to make a trade-off sometimes.”

The Commission earlier this year announced its intention to present an amendment to Annex I of the Plastic Food Contact Material regulation “which sets out the procedure for the authorisation of plastic food contact materials and the specific migration limits and overall migration limits for each substance”.

The draft measure was presented to Member State experts in the Toxicological Safety Committee, which voted in favour of it during a meeting on 20 February. It has now been forwarded to the Council and Parliament, which have until May 10th to respond.

The update of the regulation follows the “comitology procedure with scrutiny” – the same procedure that was used in the authorisation of glyphosate, the weedkiller developed by Monsanto.

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