Plastics, as true products of our times, are both essential and dangerous. They’re flexible, cheap, and useful for making almost anything. They are versatile and easy to come by. In half a century, they’ve found one way or another to show up in almost every kind of consumer good. The chair I’m sitting on now is plastic; as is the cup that I’m drinking coffee from, parts of the computer that I’m typing this on, and threads of the clothing that I’m wearing right now. Let’s think about plastic food safety. But is plastic really safe when it comes to food?
Plastic is everywhere
That’s the pleasure of plastics: people can use plastics to make a cup, a t-shirt, a computer, a chair. The guilt, which is always present behind the pleasure, is that things made from plastic degrade so slowly that they have extremely long lifespans. Their durability is both a blessing and a curse; they don’t decompose while we’re using them, but many don’t decompose very rapidly after we’ve used them, either. Pack up your groceries in a disposable bag, and you’ll enjoy the convenience for a fleeting moment; throw the bag away. It may end up in a landfill, where it will lie peacefully in repose for more than a century.
This extended half-life has long been a rallying cry for environmentalists. They’ve been applying pressure to reduce or rework the role of plastics in our society for years, and this past summer saw at least one of their goals realized: many major companies, not least among them Starbucks, opted to voluntarily stop giving out plastic straws. That’s not much more than a drop in the bucket in the context of global use of plastics, but it is a step towards a world that’s marginally less saturated with different plastic products.
Recycling Concerns with Food
Another step is recycling plastics so that they might find a new purpose that doesn’t involve a centuries-long retirement of slow disintegration in a landfill or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That’s what we’ll be turning our attention to today: specifically, we’ll be looking into the use of recycled plastics and their safety as a medium for food packaging.
On the face of it, using recycled plastics for food safety seems logical: food packaging is a major driver of plastic waste. Most food packaging made from plastic is single use; after it’s been used once, then it’s all over. Using recycled plastics for food packaging should push back against the waste that comes with single-use.
Safe for Food Packaging?
Is it safe for manufacturers to use recycled plastics for food packaging? That’s a difficult question. As the European Food Safety Authority prepares to authorize the use of some 140 different kinds of recycled plastic as food packaging, some activists are pushing back. Floriana Cimmarusti, secretary general of the advocacy group Safe Food Advocacy Europe, recently gave an interview to the website Euractiv where she highlighted some of the food safety concerns that come with recycled plastics.
According to Cimmarusti, when chemicals are exposed to plastics, the plastics absorb them. That can be a serious concern while they’re going through the waste management process; they’re prone to soak up some of the toxic or harmful chemicals that they encounter. They can encounter these chemicals during their intended use or during the waste management process.
Because plastics can persist for a such a long time, they are sometimes exposed to chemicals that have been found to be extremely toxic, or have long since been banned. Those chemicals are difficult or impossible to remove from the plastic during the recycling process. If people repurpose plastics that have absorbed such toxic chemicals as packaging materials for food, they might subsequently leach those unwanted chemicals into the food that they package, posing a risk to the consumer.
Plastics don’t have to come into contact with dangerous or banned substances to pose a risk to human health. Sometimes, they produce substances called oligomers. Oligomers are unintentional chemical byproducts of plastic that can be harmful to human health. Virgin (non-recycled) plastics have already demonstrated that oligomers can migrate from packaging to the food that they packaged. According to Cimmarusti, studies have shown recycled plastics to have a higher content of oligomers than virgin plastics, thus posing a higher risk to consumers of food packaged using recycled plastics.
This problem is complicated by the fact that sorting plastics suitable for food from those than aren’t is difficult. Often, there are few or no obvious physical differences. So, figuring out which is which on the assembly line of a recycling plant can be no easy matter. We can implement recycling systems that can effectively distinguish and sort one from the other. We may need to cross this hurdle one day to maintain the safety of recycled plastics used as food packaging.
European countries have raised some concerns over the use of post-consumer recycled plastics as food packaging materials. But what about the United States? According to an article from the publication Packaging Law, the FDA holds recycled food contact plastics to the same standard that it does virgin plastics. The FDA does not have interest in the specific food manufacturing process. Instead, they regulate plastics food additives. They do this so they examine whether polymers become a component of the food they package under intended conditions of use. That’s a regulatory hurdle that requires testing and verification to clear.
FDA has concerns about the purity of the materials involved. Manufacturers must demonstrate that the recycling process removes contaminants. They can’t recycle materials that aren’t food grade into post-consumer products that are subsequently labeled as such. Contaminant testing determines the safety of the finished product. If it isn’t up to snuff, then the manufacturer has several alternatives. They can run the material in question through migration tests to see if the contaminant makes it into packaged foods. They can blend the contaminated material with non-contaminated plastic. Or they can slap down a layer of safer material to buffer the contaminated stuff from the food.
Is that enough to protect the consumer? We’re likely to find out. As pressure to reduce single-use and virgin plastics increases, we’re likely to see companies that package food incorporate more and more recycled plastics into their portfolio. If there are long term health effects associated with these plastics, we’re likely to see those in time as well. Watch this space for updates on the relative safety of recycled plastics as they become more prominent and information on specific cases becomes more available.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)