Recycled plastic, paper, and board in food contact materials – overview of regulations

Published May 29, 2023

Paula Hirsilä

Paula Hirsilä – MSc, chemistry

Food contact & packaging materials, Measurlabs

The European Union is eager to increase the production of recycled food contact materials (FCMs) as a part of its Circular Economy Action Plan and the upcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation. To further this goal without compromising consumer safety, legislation is actively reformed, as can be seen from the recent Regulation (EU) 2022/1616 on recycled plastic in food contact materials.

For materials other than plastic, such harmonized legislation does not yet exist. Still, it is possible to use recycled paper and board in FCMs, as long as an extended safety assessment is performed to counter the increased risks of harmful substances forming and migrating into food when the material is reprocessed.

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General requirements for food contact material safety

All food contact materials manufactured and sold in the EU – including recycled ones – are subject to the framework regulation (EC) 1935/2004 and the GMP regulation (EC) 2023/2006, which set the general principles for material safety and good manufacturing practices.

According to the framework regulation, all FCMs must be sufficiently inert not to transfer chemicals into food in such quantities that could endanger human health, cause inappropriate changes in composition, or diminish sensory properties.1 In practice, inertness is evaluated through substance-specific migration or concentration limits, in addition to which an overall migration limit applies to plastic FCMs.

For some materials, migration limits are defined in material-specific EU regulations, such as the plastics regulation (EU) 10/2011. When dedicated regulations do not exist – as is the case with paper and cardboard – the transfer of harmful substances from both virgin and recycled materials must be evaluated primarily on the basis of national legislation and recommendations.

Requirements for recycled plastic in food contact materials

The new recycled plastic regulation (EU) 2022/16162 sets clearer rules than before on the kinds of recycled plastic materials that can be used in FCMs. A key part of the regulation is a list of approved recycling techniques, found in Annex I of the document. 

Currently, just two recycling technologies have been approved for the production of recycled plastic FCMs: mechanical recycling of food-grade post-consumer PET and closed product loop recycling of food-grade plastic that is cleaned and reprocessed for the same purpose for which it was originally intended. After the transition period that ends in July 2023, recycled plastic obtained through unauthorized techniques can no longer be used in food contact applications.

Additional recycling methods may, however, be added to the list in the future. For a technique to be approved, its developer has to demonstrate to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that the plastic obtained is chemically and microbiologically safe. The process is demanding and time-consuming, but in principle, plastic collected from the household waste stream could be used, if appropriate recycling and waste collection processes are developed. This was not possible before regulation 2022/1616 was introduced.

Due to the increased risk of breakdown product and contaminant presence, recycled plastic food contact materials require batch-specific testing. More comprehensive screening of non-intentionally added substances (NIAS), bisphenol A, antimony, and phthalates must also be performed.

Requirements for recycled paper and board in food contact materials

Currently, using recycled paper and cardboard in food contact materials is not regulated at the EU level. As the requirements of national legislation vary from country to country, guideline documents by the European Committee for Food Contact Materials and Articles3 or the Nordic Council of Ministers4 may be used to determine the appropriate safety assessment procedure. In addition to national regulations, these guidelines draw from statements and recommendations by EFSA, BfR, and FDA.

Recycled paper and board can be used in FCMs, but certain high-risk applications, such as baking papers and filter papers, are prohibited. Like recycled plastics, recycled paper and cardboard fibers tend to contain more impurities than virgin fibers. Typical sources of contamination include printing inks, coatings, and chemicals used during cleaning and reprocessing.

When recycled fibers are used, the Declaration of Compliance must contain a comprehensive description of the recycling process, including the quality of the recycled paper, cleaning methods, and the effectiveness of the barrier layer, if one is used. Extended migration tests are needed to ensure that phthalates, primary aromatic amines (PAA), and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are not transferred to food. In addition, sensory testing is needed to ensure that paper-based FCMs with recycled fibers do not transfer odor or off-flavor to foods.

The transfer of potentially carcinogenic MOAH compounds should also be measured, as their presence is relatively common in recycled paper and cardboard fibers. According to the EU Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF), no more than 0.5–2 mg/kg of MOAH compounds should end up in food, depending on the food type.

References:

1 Regulation (EC) No 1935/2004 on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food – the general requirements are outlined in Article 3

2 Regulation (EU) 2022/1616 on recycled plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with foods

3 European Committee for Food Contact Materials and Articles, Technical Guide on paper and board in food contact materials

4 Nordic Council of Ministers, report on paper and board food contact materials

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