Food & Beverage

How to include recycled plastic inside your Food and Beverage packaging

At a time when regulations on industrial packaging are becoming more and more stringent, and “plastic bashing” continues to be a branding issue, many Food & Beverage manufacturers are starting to think about strategies for including include more recycled content in their production. But for most brands, these strategies seem complicated, as they have to take into account regulations concerning food grade materials, as well as their branding needs.
In this post, discover what you need to know about recycled plastic for F&B applications, and a few best practices to start off your own packaging redesign. You’ll find out all you need to know to design environmentally-friendly plastic products, containing reused materials.

Eau photo créé par pereslavtseva -

The challenges regarding food grade recycled plastics

The need to find food grade recycled plastics

Finding food grade quality recycled plastics can be difficult for Food & Beverage players. In fact, recycled plastics companies are still struggling to produce recycled plastics from  waste plastic materials collected. 

Recycled plastic that can be used in a Food & Beverage application has to:

  • Come from end-of-life packaging that contained food, and not packaging that contained cosmetics, for example
  • Be decontaminated through an approved process, as contamination can damage the plastic’s recyclability

In short, you cannot just recycle plastic coming from a food grade packaging to produce food grade recycled plastic. That is why you need to find a recycled plastics supplier with solid expertise and a certified process in food grade plastic recycling.

Branding issues

Requirements regarding the quality of the recycled plastic used in Food & Beverage packaging stipulate that it has to be nearly identical to the quality of the virgin material commonly used. 

The final plastic also has to… 

  • Be transparent or light-coloured, to go through the recycling process and enable a new recycling loop
  • Have similar technical properties, the most important one being viscosity index, which is not that easy as the virgin material is often degraded during the sorting and reprocessing procedures

For many companies, this causes branding issues, as they have to make the food grade recycled plastic’s quality match their marketing needs.

The price of recycled plastics

Whereas the price of virgin plastics is indexed on the price of oil, the price of recycled plastic resin is indexed on the price of virgin plastics. That is why, in times like ours, when oil is particularly affordable, recycled plastics may seem quite expensive compared to virgin plastics

In fact, the price of PET has dropped to half its initial value in a space of five years while costs incurred by recycled plastics suppliers continue to grow, making their sustainable materials less competitive than before. 

Faced with this challenge, some Food & Beverage players decide to take their own plastic waste to their recycled plastics suppliers, to lower their costs.

What regulations say about recycled content in Food & Beverage packaging

Each country or region in the world regulates the food grade content
that can be included in Food & Beverage packaging. In Europe, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is responsible for delivering authorizations for food grade plastics. In the US, “non-objection letters” regulate these plastics, with more lenient restrictions.

However, regulations are stepping up worldwide to oblige brands to commit to using recycled, sustainable content in their products and packaging materials. In the EU, for example, regulations stipulate that, by 2025, 25% of PET bottles will have to contain at least 30% recycled materials..

Is your brand ready to meet these regulations? 

The types of recycled plastic materials that can be used in Food & Beverage packaging

As you may suspect, all kinds of recycled plastics won’t match your food grade packaging needs. Here are the few materials you can think about while designing your primary, secondary or tertiary recyclable packaging. 

For your primary packaging

As this type of packaging is in direct contact with food or beverage products, it is highly constrained by food grade quality.

Consequently, in most countries, only recycled PET (rPET, or recycled polyethylene terephthalate) is the easiest material to use in this kind of packaging, as it is the most readily available on the recycling market. 

But under very specific circumstances, other materials can be used. For example, in the UK, milk bottles can be made from HDPE plastic (high-density polyethylene), as recycled material suppliers can obtain it easily in its virgin form on the market.

For your secondary and tertiary packaging

Food & Beverage manufacturers don’t often think about upgrading their secondary and tertiary packaging’s sustainability. But it is a great way to achieve your environmental performance goals, as this type of packaging does not have to be food grade, and can therefore be made from many other types of recycled plastic. 

For example, why not think about including:

  • Labels made from recycled materials on your packaging?
  • High-density polyethylene in your pallet or bottle pack wraps and plastic film?

The necessary steps to including recycled plastics in your packaging

Are you thinking about adding recycled content to your packaging? Here are the necessary steps to prepare your organization for this type of project: 

  • The first step consists of creating a few kilos of recycled material, and making it match your technical specifications in the plastics supplier’s lab
  • The second step consists of trying doing the same, but on a semi-industrial scale (with one or two tonnes of recycled material)
  • Only then can industrial testing start

It is important to understand that these test phases are crucial to determine whether the recycled plastic can match your branding needs (in terms of colours or gloss for example), and if so, how much of this recycled content can be included in your packaging. 

These test phases are also very important for your company organization. Including recycled content in your packaging can be a significant change management project, as it involves changes in processes and branding.

What about tomorrow’s recycling technologies?

Over the past few years, sustainability-related technologies have continued to evolve. That is why it is vital you keep an eye on the recycling technologies of tomorrow, so that you can take them into account for your brand.

For example, today, only mechanical recycling is possible on an industrial scale. But innovative companies all around the world are working on a technique that could bring about a real revolution in the recycling world: chemical recycling

This emerging technique (which is still in a developmental phase) focuses on ways to “break” polymers into shorter molecules, - the ultimate goal being to end up with multiple monomers, which can each be recycled. In the coming next five to ten years, this technique will probably be applicable on an industrial scale, making it possible to create food grade recycled plastics based on non-food grade materials (such as coloured plastics, or PP that cannot currently be recycled). 

To make sure you stay up to date on these emerging technologies, find an innovative partner who focuses time and expertise on R&D projects.

Do you want to learn more about making your food packaging or beverage bottles recyclable? Download the circpack® guidelines, to help you design packaging that is fully suited to your recycling industry and that meets your branding needs.