Chemical contaminants from recycled plastic

Despite legal requirements to the contrary, banned substances are still cropping up in kitchen utensils and food packaging...
10 November 2023

Interview with 

Birgit Geueke, Food Packaging Forum Foundation


A packet of butter


The “5 Rs” of sustainable waste management are refuse - don’t buy it in the first place - reduce, reuse, repurpose, and… recycle. But when it comes to the last one, and when that involves plastic, there can be a sting in the tail. Because many plastics come into close contact with humans and our food supply. We use plastic packaging, plastic utensils, plastic plates, plastic bowls, plastic cups and plastic bottles. And although the rules say those should only be made using plastics regarded as safe, there’s evidence that, through the recycling process, unsafe plastics, and therefore a suite of potentially harmful chemicals that go with them, are ending up in food-related materials, where they should be a total no-go. Speaking with Chris Smith, Birgit Geueke, is with the Food Packaging Forum Foundation…

Birgit - We wanted to find out which kind of chemicals are found in packaging that is made out of recycled material and also which chemicals were found in plastics that is used in the kitchen several times, such as bowls or containers, or kitchen utensils.

Chris - Is this a legitimate health concern?

Birgit - We think so because the amount of chemicals that are used in these items is huge, more than hundreds, and it's always difficult to predict which kind of chemicals.

Chris - And is the industry currently un- or under-regulated in the sense the point you're making is, well, there's stuff being made from recycled things and we don't necessarily know the chemical provenance of that. And so therefore there could be all sorts of things in what we are using and, and it's coming into close contact with humans and human food stuffs?

Birgit - When looking at the European regulation, there is quite a bit in place, but there are weaknesses, let's call it like this. So for example, if you look at repeat use articles as we call them, so the containers, the kitchen utensils, they're only tested three times. But if you use them over a long time, they may degrade and then they release chemicals you don't find during the testing. That's for sure. One of the weaknesses.

Chris - And the origins of these chemicals would be presumably that because we mix lots of different plastics, which may have themselves had different compositions or different things in contact with them, in the recycling bin, a whole mixed bag of stuff ends up in recycled plastic products together with its cargo of chemicals?

Birgit - No, it shouldn't be like this. So if you use the recycled plastic in food packaging for example, again the source should be pretty clean. PT bottles should only be recycled into new PT bottles or other containers. However, there are cases where you find residue of your old TV, or food packaging or similar materials, and that's for sure not intended and shouldn't be like this according to the law.

Chris - But your argument would be that it's nevertheless happening, albeit by accident. It's happening from time to time. Do you know to what extent then it's happening?

Birgit - That's difficult to answer. I think. I cannot give you any numbers.

Chris - So how have you approached this then? What have you actually done to gain more insight into what's going on?

Birgit - Some years ago we compiled a big database where we really checked all the available studies. So we have more than a thousand studies from all different labs all over the world, which addressed these questions. We looked at all the chemicals coming from all different food packaging materials and this database is a great source to address specific questions. For example, what chemicals are found in PT bottles or which chemicals are found in the melamine bowls you're using for small kids in the kitchen.

Chris - And so what is your main concern here then? We know about these chemicals, there are laws in place that mean they shouldn't be there. Is your chief concern that although they shouldn't be there, they nevertheless are there?

Birgit - There are several concerns. We don't know that these chemicals exist in these products. That's what I meant before. And then additionally of course many of these chemicals have been tested and shouldn't be there. For example, there are carcinogens that cause cancer that interact with the hormone system. These chemicals shouldn't be there.

Chris - And so what would your recommendations be? The law says they shouldn't be there. They on the whole aren't there, but occasionally are. So there is an exposure and you are raising a legitimate health concern. What can we do about the small risk then?

Birgit - Those chemicals which are known to be toxic, they should be banned. The law shouldn't allow them in food packaging. Then we may need to change the way we test our food packaging and really look at the bottle which is sold in the end, not in the chemicals we put into the bottle in the beginning when we make it. Think about the way we are using our food packaging. That probably a question addressing the whole society. So if we want to to change away from plastics and paper packaging, for example, we may get rid of many of these chemicals.

Chris - Would you be more comfortable than if we didn't use recycled plastic in human contact type activity at all food and so on? Just use fresh?

Birgit - From a chemicals perspective, this is for sure the safer alternative and from a waste perspective, of course it, it would increase the amount of waste. But recycling can only be done for a certain number of cycles anyway. So we, we may need to find better solutions.

Chris - Yes. So would a saner safer approach be to say, well we want to bear down on and reduce plastic overall anyway, but we'll ringfence some aspects of plastic production for some applications and say that we won't use recycled plastics in those applications for the very reasons you've outlined?

Birgit - Yes. I think we really have to be very careful where we can use recycled plastics and where we shouldn't use it.

Chris - So are people actually having a conversation about this? Because what's alarming to me is that until I read your paper, I hadn't really thought about it and I suspect that policymakers who are even more remote from the science than I am may well find themselves in the same position...

Birgit - Yeah, that's something we're working on: that these two areas - the waste and the chemical safety - talk to each other. It's needed that we reduce the amount of waste and recycling is one measure. And on the other hand, we have to take care of the chemicals which we keep in the loop when we do recycling.


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