Why new rule allowing recycled plastic in food packaging raises concerns

As recently as in 2018, the FSSAI had banned the use of recycled plastic or newspaper for packaging of food items

By Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh
Published: Thursday 30 September 2021

The Union government notified September 22, 2021 the Plastic Waste Management (Second Amendment) Rules, 2021. This happened just weeks after the first amendment was notified on August 12, 2021, listing 20 single-use plastic items to be phased out.

The latest notification is a u-turn by the Centre and its stand of five years. 

The use of recycled plastic was prohibited for food contact applications in the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016: Carry bags made of recycled plastic or products made of recycled plastic shall not be used for storing, carrying, dispensing or packaging ready to eat or drink foodstuff, according to its clause b, sub rule 1, rule 4. 

The Draft Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2021 that was formulated in March 2021, did not mention this proposal. 

The latest amendment was notified under the sub rule 4 of rule 5 of the Environment Protection Rules, 1986. It said: 

Carry bags made of recycled plastic or products made of recycled plastic can be used for storing, carrying, dispensing or packaging ready to eat or drink foodstuff subject to the notification of appropriate standards and regulation under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). 

It was only in 2018 that the FSSAI banned the use of recycled plastic or newspaper for packaging of food items from July 1, 2019. The erstwhile CEO of FSSAI, Pawan Agarwal had said “The new packaging regulations would raise the bar of food safety in India to the next level”.

Ideally, FSSAI, being the competent authority for food safety in the country, should have initiated the discussion by making an amendment in their policy, following which the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) should have followed its lead. 

The stand and the approach taken by the Union government in notifying this amendment is difficult to understand.

Two major rules have been added to the Plastic Waste Management Rules without them being part of the Draft rules 2021. This means, no public consultation happened around these two issues. 

First, the rules provided a moratorium of 10 years to big companies to keep polluting, assuring that more single-use plastic products will be added to the phase-out list only after a decade from the notification of the first amendment of 2021. 

This is in addition to the use of recycled plastics for food products introduced in the latest amendment.

Composition of recycled plastics

Materials like glass, aluminium and steel are recycled and used for food contact applications. Contamination after its use has not been a problem with them. 

All the mentioned materials are recycled endlessly with a recycling efficiency of 75 per cent. The share of recycled materials in the new containers is sometimes as high as 70 per cent. 

These substances have been successfully reused as they rarely degrade with normal use and are easy to work with, especially around contamination issues. 

There are, however, over 4,000 legacy chemicals that are inherently present in post-consumer plastic. These are primarily a result of the plastic additives for desirable properties.

Why is it a problem?

India recycles 60 per cent of its plastic waste, according to the claims of the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. A lion’s share of this is done by the informal workforce in the country, the value chain for which includes kabadiwallahs, waste pickers, itinerant buyers and small-scale recyclers. 

Their reach, network, service and pricing mechanism have significantly improved over the years but the use of crude / unscientific methods used by the informal workforce to produce plastic pellets (used to make recycled goods) raise concerns, especially around the contamination and purity of the recycled plastic.

Plastic is used in a variety of sectors ranging from medicines, electronic equipment to chemical fertilizers, which also raises the concern of the source of the recycled plastic that will be used in food contact applications. 

Moreover, standards for recycling of plastic have not been specified in the country, making it all the more difficult to understand the chemical conformity of the recycled plastic.

A growing body of research proves there is migration of chemicals (additives) from plastics to the food, even in the case of virgin polymers under certain conditions.  It’s also been established that as plastics are recycled, its molecular integrity gets compromised. This may further the possibility of ‘legacy chemical’ migration from plastics to food.

The last straw: In a blended product, that is made by mixing virgin and recycled polymer, it is practically impossible to tell the amount of recycled plastic that has been added to the final product. 

The only way to ascertain the concentration of recycled plastic is by labelling, which acts as a bridge between the product and the consumer. 

Consider this: A producer comes up with a label that says the product  is made up of 60 per cent virgin plastic and 40 per cent recycled plastic. There is no way to corroborate this claim. The only option we have is to trust the producer.

This may give the big players a way out to keep using virgin polymers, while improving the eco-conscious image of their brand in the minds of consumers.

Global practices

The recycling industry is a complex ecosystem with dynamic regulations in different countries, which keep getting updated every few years. 

The legislation in every geographical region is influenced by different schools of thought, driven by one or more stakeholders such as consumers, NGO’s, businesses and political parties. More often than not, it is the businesses that lobby hard and ensure the regulations are in their favour.

In the United States of America, manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that the recycled product is of suitable purity. 

These requirements have been laid out in the federal regulations and the suggestions for the use of recycled plastic in product packaging are contained in the Guidance for Industry — Use of recycled plastic in food packaging. 

The Food and Drug Administration in the US is very well aware of the contaminants from post-consumer plastic that may appear in the final product. Therefore, each proposal of using recycled plastic is evaluated before issuing a no-objection letter. 

The plastic materials approved for use are mostly polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).

A proposal has to be supplemented with information that is relevant to make the decision which includes: 

  • The complete recycling process
  • Description of the source of the post-consumer plastic 
  • Description of steps taken to avoid contamination
  • Tests to show that all potential contaminants have been removed during the recycling process
  • Description of the future use of the plastic

The federal agency includes personal suggestions as to whether the proposed recycling process will produce pure plastic that is suitable for food contact applications or not.

The European Union has come up with a ‘plastic strategy’ in 2018. The objective of the strategy is to transform the way plastic products are designed, produced, used and recycled in the EU. 

The European commission back in 2018 was preparing to fast track approval of 140 recycling processes for use in food and drinks packaging. The proposal for approving the said recycling processes has also involved the European food safety authority (EFSA). However, the final approval rests with the European Commission.

“Only food-contact materials and articles that contain recycled plastics obtained from an authorised recycling process may be marketed in the EU after petitions for recycling processes are evaluated,” according to regulation 282 / 2008. 

Moreover, plastics regulation 10 / 2011 outlines specific requirements for manufacturing and marketing within the EU plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with food.

These deliberations have been going on for long and only a handful of regulations have come in from time to time. However, the decision on inclusion of recycled plastics for food contact application has not been made.

Most countries in Asia lack a specific regulation to explicitly allow or prohibit the use of recycled plastics in food applications. Recent updates by Korea, China and Thailand indicate that the region may soon see food packaging applications using recycled materials. 

“The use of recycled materials in food contact materials (FCM) is becoming a ‘very hot topic’ in China,” China’s National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment Deputy Director Zhu Lei had said November 2020. The agency is now conducting an industry survey and initiating a risk assessment method for recycled FCM.

In May 2020, Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety revised its Standards and Specifications for Food Utensils, Containers and Packaging legislation. The revision allowed the use of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (R-PET) and polyethylene naphthalate (R-PEN) in FCM. 

Only chemically recycled resins were allowed and can only be used in parts that do not come into direct contact with food (in multi-layer structures, for instance).

Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration is considering revising the Ministry of Health Notification 295 (2005) on plastic food containers to potentially permit the use of R-PET and recycled high-density polyethylene for food contact.

Around 59 per cent of the plastics we use today comes from the packaging industry (rigid as well as flexible), mostly fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-profit, pointed out. 

Industrial packaging happens to be the highest user of plastic. This is why the world’s major economies have set a priority to develop guidelines to ensure that products made with recycled plastic are fit for being used in packaging and food packaging applications. The other countries are following suit.

Recommendations for India

The first and foremost aspect of notifications has to be transparency to inform us of the intent and objective of the government. 

Opaque processes and half-baked notifications make little difference on the ground. They only add to the confusion of how the notification has to be interpreted. 

Before the FSSAI takes a call to include recycled plastic for food contact applications, we have to ensure the following things:

  • Most, if not all, our plastic has to be recycled in authorised recycling facilities. The country's data around the number and capacity of plastic recycling plants is very weak. We need a yardstick to understand our capacity to recycle correctly and utilise the material for other applications, thus closing the loop.
  • The use of recycled plastic should have been mandated for non-food applications initially to understand the issues faced by the industries in terms of production and social acceptability.
  • An inventory needs to be created of the types of processes that we have in the country to recycle our plastics and then identify the plastic recycling processes that are safe enough to produce recycled plastic that can be used for food contact applications.
  • Guidelines are required for the use of recycled plastic for packaging of ready-to-eat food materials. This should include the source of the post-consumer plastic waste, type of polymer that can be used, the nature of the food material that they can be used for packaging, the average time for which the plastic will be in contact with the food and finally, the temperature that the packaging material may be subjected to while still in contact with the food material.

A working mechanism needs to be developed with all the stakeholders, which include but are not limited to MoEFCC, FSSAI, the Central Pollution Control Board, all the State Pollution Control Boards and the Pollution Control Committees, the Urban Local Bodies, representatives of the plastic industry, including the plastic recycling industry as well as consumers. 

This will enable us to come up with a rational solution for the use of recycled plastic.

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