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Recycled Plastics Could Cause Tummy Troubles (Among Other Things)

Posted in Food Safety on September 17, 2018

Growing up, I was told to never microwave foods in plastic containers, even if they said microwave safe. This is something that I just carried over into adulthood, but it appears there is more to this theory and using plastic containers in general than I was aware.

Euractiv recently provided an article that spoke about the risks associated with using recycled plastic products and some of the results were quite shocking to me. While we do try to recycle as much plastic and paper as we can, there are still risks to using recycled plastics – especially when speaking in terms of food.

The article states: 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.

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 guarantees 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.

We also learn from Sciencing that the process of recycling plastic can be potentially harmful to the environment: Each piece of recycled plastic represents a potential environmental threat. The process of melting down and recycling plastic produces VOC, or volatile organic compounds, fumes that can harm plant and animal life near the industrial site. The heat needed to melt plastic also generates carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming. Recycling center workers who discover unrecyclable plastic, which includes pieces that contain food waste or debris, may discard it improperly. Since plastic is not classified as a hazardous material, its recycling doesn’t come under international regulation, thereby complicating efforts to solve this problem.

There are potential health risks from handling the recycled plastic as well. The same VOCs that cause plastic recycling to harm the environment can also present health threats to the people who encounter recycled plastics. Plastic resin, which is part of the manufacturing and recycling process, and comes from petroleum, can leach into foods stored in recycled plastic containers. The amount of chemicals that users consume can increase based on the type of plastic and other factors like temperature and the plastic’s age. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not cite recycled plastics as a major health threat, plastic manufacturers only use a small portion of recycled plastic, if any, when producing food containers and packaging.

Reusing plastic bottles for drinking can pose health risks, too. Studies have indicated that food and drinks stored in such containers—including those ubiquitous clear water bottles hanging from just about every hiker’s backpack—can contain trace amounts of Bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical that may interfere with the body’s natural hormonal messaging system.  Health advocates also recommend not reusing bottles made from plastic #1 (polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET or PETE), including most disposable water, soda, and juice bottles. According to The Green Guide, such bottles may be safe for one-time use, but reuse should be avoided because studies indicate they may leach DEHP—another probable human carcinogen—when they are in less-than-perfect condition. When thinking drinking bottles, we have resorted to aluminum which we can clean properly and sanitize better as opposed to using plastic. There are safe plastic bottles as well.


Recycled plastic can only be recycled one time which leaves it falling victim to the landfill eventually, recycling just delays the process.

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 aluminum 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.

Whether you choose plastic, aluminum or another option be sure to always make sure your containers are properly cleaned and that you take precautions to ensure that you and your family stay safe.

By: Samantha Cooper, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)