Plastics for the food industry: the future is increasingly green

Safer and more sustainable food plastics

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Plastic is an incredibly useful, versatile and resistant material, which is used in different sectors, from industrial to domestic, and can have numerous applications depending on the type of use and its specific characteristics. Plastics, thanks to their properties and the high level of hygiene that they can guarantee, are widely used for the production of packaging, food and non-food, but also of technologies and plastic equipment for food companies, which must comply with specific rules relating to direct contact with food.

One of the advantages of plastic is its durability and long life. Not being biodegradable, however, can be harmful if thrown and dispersed in large quantities in the environment. The environmental impact of plastic, in fact, is mainly linked to its disposal, but there is good news! Recycling plastics is becoming easier and the European Commission has recently adopted new rules regarding the safety of recycled plastics intended for contact with food.

But what does this mean for the food industry? Let’s see why it is important to recycle plastic, how to recycle it and what are the new safety rules introduced for the use of recycled plastic in contact with food.

Recycled plastic for greater sustainability: a growing sector

In the plastics sector some segments are growing and are showing increasing interest in the production of more sustainable equipment and packaging and the recycling of plastics, which are then reintroduced into the production cycle and used for the production of new objects or packaging. The use of eco-friendly materials and a growing attention to plastic recycling have promoted the development of new technologies and more sophisticated and eco-friendly machinery in the packaging and production of equipment for the food industry.

The correct disposal of plastic waste is also receiving increasing attention, both from companies in the sector and consumers: sustainability and recyclability of materials are in fact considered increasingly important aspects for the choice of a given product and consumers are more likely to support companies that show interest in recycling and environmental protection.

How to recycle plastic: different types of recyclable plastics

Before seeing in more depth how to recycle plastic, it is important to specify that the term "plastic" does not indicate a single material, but a large variety of plastics, which present composition, specific properties and characteristics depending on the raw materials used and the type of processing to which they are subjected. To properly recycle plastic, it is therefore essential to first select and divide the different plastic materials, which are usually recognizable thanks to a specific recycling logo (a triangle containing a number from 1 to 7). These include, for example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high or low density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE) and polypropylene (PP).

All other types of plastics and their combinations do not have a specific recycling code (this is the case, for example, of polymethylmethacrylate and polycarbonate) and are usually indicated by code 7. Due to their heterogeneity and the wide range of applications for which they can be used, these types of plastics are not sent directly to recycling, but remain in the remaining fraction to be then used for energy recovery.

How is plastic recycled?

Plastics can be recycled through different processes, which allow to create new products, but also to produce energy, heat or electricity. There are two main categories of processes for plastics recycling:

  • mechanical recycling, which is the most common and most widely used process, which consists in the collection and recovery of plastic waste that is then processed, reshaped and reused for the production of new plastic products. In mechanical recycling, plastics are separated by type, color and other parameters, and then cleaned and shredded. They are then melted, filtered and extruded to form pellets (polymer granules) from which new products are obtained (which may be similar to the original ones or completely different from the previous ones);
  • chemical recycling, less widespread but growing, which consists in the breakdown of polymers into monomers and oligomers (through a depolymerization process) that are then reused in other products. This process is carried out thanks to the action of heat and treating the plastic with specific chemicals. One of the advantages of this process is that it partially eliminates the need to separate plastics by type because different types of plastics can be broken down together.

In addition to these processes, plastic can also be recycled through a process of waste-to-energy, which allows to extract from plastics alternative fuels, used for the production of thermoelectric energy. 

Recycled plastic for food: the new standards

The European Commission has recently introduced new rules on the safety of recycled plastic intended for contact with food products. Since 10 October 2022, EU Regulation 2022/1616 has been in force (binding since July 2023), which guarantees complete transparency and greater control of the compliance of recycling processes, with a view to ensuring the chemical and microbiological safety of recycled plastic materials and equipment used in the food sector. The new Regulation repeals and replaces the previous Regulation 282/2008/EC and represents a specification of Regulation 1935/2004/EC concerning the general rules for plastics intended for contact with food.

The measure regulates the placing on the market of food materials and equipment derived from recycled plastic and the authorised recycling processes: from July 2023 it will therefore no longer be possible to produce recycled plastics certified by national laws, but can only be placed on the market those made following the recycling technologies defined by the new European regulation, aimed at ensuring the quality of the recycling and decontamination processes.

All products for the food industry proposed by IFT are manufactured in full compliance with EC directives and the national ministerial decree, to always ensure complete safety, conformity and quality of products.

For more information on plastic materials or equipment intended for contact with food, please contact us.