Sustainability is one of the most debated topics in the packaging and in particular in the food sector: when the packaging runs out of function, it is thrown and inevitably becomes waste. The recent circular economy package adopted by the European Commission triggers the reasoning on packaging and packaging waste. Among the new targets, recycling of at least 55% of urban waste is expected by 2025 and 65% of packaging will have to be recycled and the entire life cycle of a product must be taken into account to weigh its actual “environmental sustainability”.
This growing trend, fostered by issues concerning pollution that the whole world is experiencing, is also supported by the legislation: recycled packaging will be increasingly present in our daily lives.
The philosophy of the circular economy involves the re-thinking of products so that they can be recycled into objects of similar value: it is desirable that food packaging increases more and more because it can be food packaging again when collected correctly. The large multinationals, but also many Italian distribution chains have declared their intention to use recycled packaging only, to reduce packaging, or to increase the percentage of recycled PET in bottles. The steps to be taken are many since current demand for recycled plastics only amounts to 6% of the plastics produced (Source: WWF). The challenges of recycled food packaging are not limited to the production and waste collection chain, but also to the safety of recycled materials. The recycling treatment exposes packaging to different sources of contamination, in particular Non-Intentionally Added Substances (NIAS), impurities or reaction/degradation products that are often difficult to identify and for which it is therefore suitable to check whether they could somehow be dangerous to health. Just to give you some examples, the typical contaminants of recycled plastics are additives and degradation products such as antioxidants and stabilizers, or substances derived from non-food grade plastics such as brominated flame retardants, but also metals, odor-forming molecules, etc. In the recycling process, even paper can absorb contaminants, also because there is no distinction between suitable and unsuitable food contact paper in the separate collection. In recent years, particular emphasis has been given to the contamination of mineral oils (MOSH and MOAH) in recycled paper, but bisphenols and phthalates (contaminants with properties of endocrine disruptors) can also be found. Other materials are not free from possible contamination: in glass, for example, the lead content can increase with recycling.
These challenges should not stop the idea of chasing the sustainability of packaging through the production of recycled products, but attention will have to be paid to safety in all materials in contact with food. In order for the “sustainable and safe” binomial to be truly winning, careful planning and verification of the suitability of packaging with tests that exclude the migration of unexpected contaminants is appropriate.
Mérieux NutriSciences has been studying food contact materials for years and now it offers targeted tests to check the safety of recycled packaging.
- NIAS Screening
Through a combined chemical-toxicological-bioassay approach, the presence of unintentionally added substances that may generate during the recycling of materials is studied.
- Challenge test
The process leading to the production of recycled packaging intended to come into contact with food must obtain a suitability validation: the challenge tests verify that the washings which packaging undergoes is effective in decontaminating the product; they are also carried out on multi-layer packaging to check the functional barrier effect for film and film contaminants.
- Assessment of the functional barrier effect
Through targeted migration studies carried out under controlled analysis conditions, the assessment is performed to check whether a material in contact with food actually acts as a functional barrier and therefore prevents the migration of contaminants from the outer recycled layers to food.
- Sensory analysis
They aim at making sure that there is no difference between the taste of foods stored in containers of virgin or recycled materials.