In a circular economy, the value of products and materials should be maintained for as long as possible, while raw material use, energy inputs and waste production should be minimized. Recycling food packaging waste into new food packaging presents particular challenges with regard to issues of chemical safety. For this reason, recycling efforts can often result not in true recycling into products of similar quality but rather in a downcycling, i.e., manufacturing of products with lower chemical safety standards compared to the original input. Examples include the production of polyester clothing from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage bottles or manufacturing composite benches using polyethylene from beverage containers. To truly close product recycling loops by producing articles of a similar quality and safety standards, hazardous chemical components should be either phased out entirely at the design stage of a product, or, if no design alternatives exist, effectively managed during each recycling cycle.
In 2018, the Food Packaging Forum published an article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cleaner Production on chemical safety and material properties affecting the performance of different food packaging types in the context of the circular economy. The article focuses on the most common types of food packaging materials, including plastics, paper/board, metals, glass, and multimaterial multilayer packaging such as beverage cartons, and it discusses the most important properties affecting the recyclability of these materials. It also provides a review of material-specific data on chemical contamination issues that could arise during recycling and potentially impact the safe use of recycled food contact materials. A summary article is available, and the full article can be downloaded for free from the publisher’s website.
Geueke, B. et al. (2018). “Food packaging in the circular economy: Overview of chemical safety aspects for commonly used materials.” Journal of Cleaner Production 193:491-505.
Food packaging facilitates storage, handling, transport, and preservation of food and is essential for preventing food waste. Besides these beneficial properties, food packaging causes rising concern for the environment due to its high production volume, often short usage time, and problems related to waste management and littering. Reduction, reuse, and recycling, but also redesign support the aims of the circular economy. These tools also have the potential to decrease the environmental impact of food packaging.
In this article, we focus on chemical safety aspects of recycled food packaging, as recycling is currently seen as an important measure to manage packaging waste. However, recycling may increase the levels of potentially hazardous chemicals in the packaging and -after migration- in the food. Since exposure to certain chemicals migrating from food packaging has been associated with chronic diseases, it is of high importance to assess the safety of recycled packaging. Therefore, we describe recycling processes of commonly used food packaging materials, including plastics, paper and board, aluminum, steel, and multimaterial multilayers (e.g., beverage cartons). Further, we give an overview of typical migrants from all types of recycled food packaging materials, and summarize approaches to reduce chemical contamination. We discuss the role of food packaging in the circular economy, where recycling is only one of many complementary tools for providing environmentally-friendly and safe food packaging.