A team of researchers from Brunel University, University College London and Qatar University have raised concerns regarding the safety of using recycled polyethene (PE) plastic for food packaging.

The researchers conducted a comprehensive analysis of 116 studies on PE packaging to investigate the potential chemical risks associated with its use.

The report titled ‘Unpacking the complexity of the polyethylene food contact articles value chain’ revealed that polyethene packaging contains 377 “food contact chemicals,” including bisphenol A and phthalates.

These chemicals have the potential to disrupt hormones and pose health risks. Alarmingly, 211 of these chemicals were found to seep into food at least once during the plastic’s life cycle.

Lack of evidence for safe recycling of polyethene plastic into food packaging

According to Dr Eleni Iacovidou, an environmental management lecturer at Brunel University, the research team discovered a “lack of evidence” to support the safe recycling of polyethene plastic into food-grade packaging.

The researchers cited the significant presence of chemicals in the material as a cause for concern.

Many of the studies they reviewed lacked crucial details regarding the bags or containers’ specific usage, thickness, storage conditions and reuse frequency.

The report highlights that only a quarter of the 377 chemicals found in polyethene packaging are authorised by EU regulation. Furthermore, one-third of the authorised chemicals exceed the safe limit.

This information underscores the urgent need for a better understanding and monitoring of polyethene food packaging quality from a chemical perspective throughout its life cycle, especially with the increasing demand for recycled polyethene in producing new food-grade packaging.

Implications and environmental impact

Polyethene (PE) is the most widely used type of plastic food packaging due to its excellent processability and ability to preserve food freshness.

It is commonly found in two main variations: high-density PE (HDPE) and low-density PE (LDPE). LDPE is used for meat and cucumber wrappers while HDPE is used for milk bottles and detergents.

According to the researchers, despite the European commitment to recycling more plastic, the risks associated with reusing secondary PE material for food contact packaging remain unclear.

The report highlights that the implications of using and recycling polyethene from a chemical perspective have been insufficiently explored.

Furthermore, the export of plastic waste has contributed to pollution, with polyethene being the most common type of waste found in marine and coastal environments. Globally, an estimated 79% of total polyethene waste ends up in landfills.

The researchers conclude that increasing the recycled content in food contact materials such as plastic packaging, poses a safety challenge that requires immediate attention.

Recycling processes can introduce unknown and potentially hazardous chemicals that may migrate from recycled materials.

To achieve a sustainable plastics value chain, it is crucial to address these chemical safety concerns and better understand the quality of recycled polyethene in food packaging.