Fact sheets

Food Packaging and recycling

Learn about five food packaging material types including their applications, material properties, chemical safety, and end-of-life options; understand how recyclability and chemical safety of food packaging are interconnected

Fact sheets

Plastic

Paper and Board

Multimaterial

About Food Packaging Materials

Food packaging is essential for transporting, storing, handling, and preserving food. The most common food packaging materials are different types of plastic polymers, paper and board, metal, glass, and various multilayer materials. They are used in combination with each other and with other materials, such as printing inks, adhesives, and coatings.

Besides its many useful properties, food packaging is a well-known source of chemicals that can be transferred from the packaging into food and beverages. This process is called chemical migration, and it leads to low levels of chemical mixtures regularly becoming part of everybody’s diet. Some of the migrating chemicals have hazardous properties; for others, the effects on human health are unknown. More information is available in the Fact Sheet on Food Packaging and Human Health.

Many factors influence the chemical migration from packaging into foodstuffs, and not all types of food packaging are equally of concern. There are important differences in the chemical migration behavior for different types of food packaging. Therefore, it is of high importance to understand the material properties of food packaging and how they can affect migration.

The material fact sheets provide brief summaries of applications, material properties, chemical safety, and end-of-life options for five food packaging materials. They focus further on the recycling of the different materials and explain why material properties have an influence on the chemical safety as well as the recyclability.

Recycling

of food packaging materials

Food packaging often turns into waste after short periods of use. Recycling is currently discussed as one option to reduce the environmental impact of food packaging. Efficient collection and separation processes are a prerequisite for successful recycling.

However, whether recycling can be applied to keep the material in a closed cycle and produce new food packaging strongly depends on the material type. Properties such as stability, color, and smell can change during recycling. Additionally, the chemical safety can be compromised if the material allows carry over of contaminants or tends to degrade in the process.

Therefore, some materials can be recycled almost infinitely into new food packaging. For others, the number of cycles is limited, and special measures are needed to guarantee the safety of the recycled material before it is used in contact with food again. The third group of materials cannot be recycled into new food packaging – these materials are either downcycled or not recycled at all. Currently, the main food packaging materials can be grouped accordingly:

Material properties and/or missing processes do not allow recycling into new food packaging

Most plastic food packaging that is not made of PET cannot be recycled into new food packaging due to missing processes and safety concerns. Therefore, it is typically downcycled and used in other applications, for example, in construction and agriculture.

Multilayer food packaging consisting of different plastic polymers or combinations of different materials is currently almost not recyclable, because the layers are very difficult to separate. Currently, only the paperboard fraction of beverage cartons can be separated in established recycling processes, but the recovered material is not used in contact with food again.

Addition of virgin material and special measures needed to guarantee function and safety of recycled food packaging

For other materials, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and paper and board, established recycling processes exist. However, certain precautions must be taken to produce materials that are safe to use in contact with food. Alternatively, the direct contact of the recycled material with the food can be prevented by suitable measures such as barriers, which may, in turn, affect further recycling.

In addition to the safety concerns, plastic polymers and paper and board can only be recycled for a limited number of cycles and require the addition of virgin material.

Material properties and chemical safety of recycled food packaging remain high after repeated cycles

The ‘permanent’ materials metal and glass do not change their properties during recycling. They can be recycled over and over again, and the recycled materials are as safe as the virgin materials to be used in new food packaging. Although a very high content of recycled material is technically possible, some virgin raw materials for metal and glass are commonly added in most processes.

Recycling of metal and glass are energy intensive processes. However, glass in particular can be easily cleaned and sanitized, making this material an ideal candidate for reuse.

More information about food packaging recycling is available in the respective section of each fact sheet.

Scientific Resources

Overview of intentionally used food contact chemicals and their hazards

Groh K., Geueke B., Martin O., Maffini M., and Muncke J. 2021, Environment International; Volume 150, 106225, DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.106225

Impacts of food contact chemicals on human health: a consensus statement

Muncke J., Andersson A.-M., Backhaus T., Boucher J.M., Carney Almroth B., Castillo Castillo A., Chevrier J., Demeneix B.A., Emmanuel J.A., Fini J.-B., Gee D., Geueke B., Groh K., Heindel J.J., Houlihan J., Kassotis C.D., Kwiatkowski C.F., Lefferts L.Y., Maffini M.V., Martin O.V., Myers J.P., Nadal A., Nerin C., Pelch K.E., Rojello Fernández S., Sargis R.M., Soto A.M., Trasande L., Vandenberg L.N., Wagner M, Wu C., Zoeller R.T. & Scheringer M. 2020, Environmental Health; Volume 25(20), DOI: 10.1186/s12940-020-0572-5

Food packaging in the circular economy: Overview of chemical safety aspects for commonly used materials

Geueke B., Groh K., and Muncke J. 2018, Journal of Cleaner Production; Volume 193, pages 491-505, DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.05.005