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Expert Insight: Overcoming hurdles in the plastic circular economy

Watch this on-demand webinar to explore the challenges of the plastic waste industry and the importance of complying with plastic packaging legislation

07 Jun 2022

Portrait of Olivier Vitrac
Olivier Vitrac, Senior Scientist at INRAE Paris-Saclay University, France

Plastic materials play a crucial role in our lives, and they are the go-to solution for a variety of applications such as packaging, construction and building, electronics, automotive, and more. However, we now realize their use can harm the environment if they are disposed of incorrectly and are not recycled. Microplastics appearing at multiple levels of the food chain are one such example that underlines the importance of the need for a circular economy.

The sustainability of new materials, the increasing number of regulations to protect our environment and health, plus the capability of recycling and regeneration of plastic waste will drive future developments in the polymer industry. 

In this one-day event, now available on demand, join Agnieszka van Batavia, sustainability and regulatory advisor at Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Olivier Vitrac, senior scientist at INRAE Paris-Saclay University, and Christelle Mégier, OEM product manager at HORIBA, as they explore the challenges in this industry and share how HORIBA is supporting its transition to the future.

Read on for highlights from the live Q&A session from the second session in the one-day event, or register now to watch the webinar on demand.

Does having a high level of recycled content in new food packaging mean we will have more contaminated food?

OV: I would say that it is not a direct consequence, but there is a risk that there will be more chemicals if you recycle more. At this stage, recycled paper and board are reused without any kind of decontamination step. In some European countries, they want to ban mineral oil from being used in any kind of printing for leaflets and packaging to prevent these chemicals from entering the recycling loop. 

Plastics, such as polyolefins bottles, are easily contaminated by their content, e.g., shampoo, because they are rubber materials. We have a lot of chemicals inside with high molecular weight that are difficult to remove, and these molecules are easily formulated. 

For other plastics, for example, outdoor furniture or office chairs, these plastics are not food grade at all due to their formulation, and we cannot mix them.

But with good traceability, control of our circular economy, and if we have a method to evaluate that we are doing things correctly, perhaps we can maintain the risk at a more acceptable level.

What will be the biggest challenges for QC labs in the food packaging industry, considering the usage of recyclable plastics?

OV: Personally, I feel that there is a big issue with traceability, as in the past, the plastic industry did not want to give you the formulation of their plastics. This means you need to evaluate the safety of the plastic but without the names of chemicals, which is difficult.

We are currently working on this, and we have a method now, but the issue is still determining the origin of the materials. Are these materials coming from a food-grade application? Have these materials been decontaminated or not? Are they coming from within the EU or from outside?

At the moment, we cannot answer these questions easily. If we were to tag polymers, then it would be much easier. But for now, in the absence of laws, methods, and good practices, it's really difficult to have correct evaluations.

Are biopolymers an option for food packaging?

OV: They are still authorized, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they are safer, or that they are better for the environment. It depends on whether they can be collected and recycled, and that is currently a big debate.

With all the concerns surrounding contamination from new and recycled disposable packaging, i.e., plastic, paper, and cardboard, is glass or metal an option, and is there a similar likelihood of contamination from glass or metal?

OV: Glass and metals can be recycled a thousand times. We don't have any safety issues with this, but it's not necessarily good for the environment. For one kilogram of food, you need one kilogram of glass, so for transportation, it is not so good. 

For metals, excluding aluminum, you cannot put them directly in contact with food. For example, you cannot put iron in contact with food as it will result in oxidation due to a very strong oxygen reaction. To prevent this, you would need a coating, and then you would have to prevent the coating from entering the food product. Currently, you cannot use epoxy phenolic coatings. The only option that you have is to use perhaps thermoplastics or something similar, however, this means that you are putting plastics back into the packaging.

One solution is to be able to develop returnable cans, which could be one option to really reduce the impact. However, it still cannot be put in contact directly with food.

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