Newswise — Washington D.C. -- Understanding risks posed by non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) in recycled polyolefin materials used as Food Contact Materials in packaging is necessary to safeguard public and environmental health, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Iowa State University Polymer and Food Protection Consortium highlight the necessity of monitoring NIAS and aligning them with regulations to limit the use of potentially harmful additives in plastics. More monitoring would enhance the safe recycling and disposal of plastic waste – which are key to building a more circular economy.

Packaging is one of the most important sectors comprising almost 40% of the total plastic demand. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging were produced in the USA in 2018. The proportion of this that is being recycled has held steady or has declined over the past few years.

It is important to consider the potential health and environmental impacts of these compounds and to monitor their concentrations in both virgin and Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) polymers. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration and other authorities have set guidelines for manufacturers to test and ensure the safety of recycled plastics used in food packaging.

Currently, plastic waste derived from both food and non-food applications is not differentiated and there is potential for small concentrations of non-food grade materials to be unintentionally co-mingled in single source reclamation streams. This requires more research both on the presence of chemicals and their potential harm if these materials are to be used for direct food contact, the researchers say.

The scientists identified 61 different compounds in virgin and PCR polyolefin samples grouped as hydrocarbons, aldehydes, alcohols, phthalates, carboxylic acids, per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), ketones and amines. Overall, 9 substances were detected in the virgin polyethylene samples, while 52 components were detected in the recycled polyolefin samples.

The detection of hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and other potentially harmful substances in recycled polyolefins raises concerns about exposure to these compounds during the use and disposal of plastic food contact products.

The research underscores the importance of implementing effective regulatory measures and monitoring to reduce the use of potentially harmful additives in plastic manufacturing and to ensure the safe recycling and disposal of plastic waste as efforts build toward a circular economy.

According to the authors, “Overall, the presence of these compounds in polyolefins emphasizes the need for better understanding of the potential risks associated with the production, use, and disposal of plastic products.”

The study is available here.

The Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) is committed to leading positive change across the food and beverage ecosystem. This paper was supported in part by IAFNS’ Food Packaging Safety and Sustainability Committee. IAFNS is a 501(c)(3) science-focused nonprofit uniquely positioned to mobilize government, industry and academia to drive, fund and lead actionable research.

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