Towards 100 % recyclable or re-usable plastic food packaging in 10 years
What would food be without packaging? And what does packaging mostly consist of? Of course: plastic! To date, only few other materials have proved as reliable for food packaging as plastic. At the same time, we know that plastic has many disadvantages for the environment. Read this blogpost to be informed on the most important initiatives of the food sector and on the legal tools of the European Commission in this field.
The visionary number of 2030
By 2030, all plastic packaging in the EU will be recyclable or re-usable. In other words, all plastic packaging will then be collected and transformed into new packaging materials, or can be used as such more once. This goal follows, amongst others, from the European Strategy for Plastics. It is a worthy endeavor, and for some it is not even ambiguous enough. The signatories of the Plastics Pact aim to achieve this result as early as 2025. Nestlé has also announced its ambition to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or re-usable by 2025. Since this year, Lipton bottles sold in the Netherlands are already made from 100% recycled plastic. The so-called European Single-use plastics Directive (Directive 2019/904) will soon be introduced to further promote recycling of plastics as one of the measures against disposable plastics. In the Netherlands, this Directive will be implemented by means of a General Administrative Order (in Dutch: Algemene Maatregel van Bestuur, or “AMvB”) before the Directive’s date of application on 3 July 2021. In this regard, an internet consultation will be launched this month to invite citizens, companies and institutions to make suggestions to improve the quality and feasibility of the current proposal.
Recycled materials and articles
The encouragement to use recycled materials and articles in the EU for environmental reasons was already expressed in recital 24 of the European framework legislation on food contact materials (Regulation 1935/2004). However, food safety and consumer protection should not be neglected. Therefore, food packaging materials, including recycled plastics, should not endanger human health and not adversely affect the composition of foods or their sensory properties in an unacceptable way. The above-mentioned framework legislation leaves room for detailed rules on specific materials, and priority has been given to rules on recycled plastics. Their use has been increasing for a long time. Indeed, today’s sustainability initiatives cannot be imagined without the recycling of plastic food packaging. Moreover, diverging national legislation on this topic as a consequence of no harmonization at EU level would be highly undesirable.
Specific rules on recycled plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with foods can be found in Regulation 282/2008. Such rules are important because plastic packaging waste can be contaminated by residues from previous use, but also by contaminants from misuse and from non-authorized substances. In order to ensure that possible contamination is removed and that recycled plastics therefore do not adversely affect human health and foodstuffs with which they come into contact, an appropriate sorting and recycling process is essential. It should be noted that Regulation 282/2008 refers to mechanical recycling, which does not involve any significant change in the chemical structure of the plastic material. This process is less suitable for composites and multilayered plastics, which means that not all plastics are eligible for recycling under Regulation 282/2008.
Authorization procedure plastic recycling processes in a nutshell
Before a recycling process can be applied to plastics to create food packaging, the process must be approved by the European Commission. Such authorizations are process specific. This means that authorizations cover a specific recycling process used in a specific company by applying specific technologies and process parameters. Authorization holders are of course free to license out the authorized recycling process to other companies. Applications for the approval of recycling processes shall be submitted to the competent authority at Member State level. The European Commission published a list of contact points for competent authorities. In the Netherlands, applications can be submitted to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (in Dutch: Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport, or “VWS”) and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (in Dutch, Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu, or “RIVM”).
As part of the application, a technical dossier is to be provided. This dossier will subsequently be subject to a safety assessment by EFSA, followed by a scientific opinion. In fact, here we very much see the parallel with the safety evaluations EFSA performs regarding for instance Novel Foods and additives. Topics to be covered to evaluate the safety of a particular recycling process include input characterization, description of the recycling process, determination of the decontamination efficiency of the recycling process, output characterization, and intended application in contact with food. For example, the dossier must demonstrate that and how it is ensured that the input material does not contain any chemical substances that could survive the recycling process and migrate to our foods in irresponsible quantities. In order to evaluate potential migration, detailed information on the type of food(s) intended to come into contact with the final product shall be provided. This will also include information on time, temperature and contact surface. Another important aspect concerns single or repeated use of the final product. All of this data serves to exclude possible health hazards and unacceptable influences on foods due to migration of substances. Further details can be found in the guidelines published by EFSA.
After receipt of a valid dossier, EFSA has, in principle, six months to evaluate the dossier. Thereafter, it is up to the European Commission to take an authorization decision. In doing so, it will take into account EFSA’s scientific advice. The final authorization may be subject to conditions and/or restrictions, such as with regard to the plastic input, the recycling process and/or the field of application of the recycled plastic. Authorized recycling processes are listed in a Community register established by the European Commission.
Many companies like to inform consumers that the food packaging they use is made from recycled plastics. However, it is essential that consumers are not misled about, for example, the actual content of recycled plastics used. Companies are therefore advised to follow ISO 14021 on environmental labels and declarations, or equivalent rules. In addition, the Dutch Advertising Code Committee (in Dutch: Reclame Code Commissie, or “RCC”) also explains what is possible and what is not, such as regarding packaging made of recycled plastics being environmentally friendly or friendlier. Environmental claims, i.e. advertisements in which implicit or explicit reference is made to environmental aspects associated with the production, distribution, consumption or waste processing of goods or services, must be verifiable. For instance, communicating that an article is “good for nature” because of the material used is perceived as misleading when this statement cannot be checked. It is no problem to use environmental symbols, as long as there is no confusion about the symbol’s origin and meaning. Examples of this include the Mobius Loop accompanied by the percentage of recycled material used in or near the symbol, as well as Lipton’s variation thereof.
While food business operators shall normally not be involved in the recycling of packaging themselves, they are advised to closely follow developments in this regard. Packaging namely plays an essential role in protecting foodstuffs and in providing information about the food it contains. Food business operators will therefore benefit from being aware of sustainable packaging possibilities. Moreover, food business operators can strengthen their legal position by being familiar with the legal requirements of the parties they cooperate with as well as with their own responsibilities set out by law. An example of the latter concerns making verifiable and non-misleading environmental claims, which is not always as easily done as said.