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Plastics and plastic recycling

Food contact materials are all materials and articles intended to come into contact with food, such as packaging and containers, kitchen equipment, cutlery and dishes. In the European Union, plastic is one of the most common food contact materials. These may be made exclusively of plastic or they may consist of a plastic layer on top of another material such as metal or paper. Recycled plastic may also under certain conditions be used in food contact materials.

The safety of food contact materials requires evaluation as chemicals can migrate from the materials into food. The materials should be manufactured in compliance with EU regulations, including good manufacturing practices, so that any potential transfer to foods does not raise safety concerns, change the composition of the food in an unacceptable way or have adverse effects on the quality of foods (for instance, taste and/or odour).


In February 2015, EFSA published a scientific opinion on the safety assessment of two processes used to recycle ‘high-density polyethylene’ (HDPE) plastic bottles for use as food contact materials. EFSA’s experts concluded that for using recycled HDPE in trays for dried whole fruits and vegetables (including mushrooms) the processes are safe. However, they also found that the available data were insufficient to conclude on the safety of these processes for the main use of these materials in plastic milk bottles and trays for animal products. The experts requested additional data to further assess the safety of this process, while underlining that this outcome does not signify that bottles manufactured with this recycled material are unsafe.

Note on the timing of scientific opinions on plastic recycling processes

EFSA issues a scientific opinion for recycling processes for which a valid application has been submitted. In line with its Founding Regulation, EFSA publishes its opinions in a timely manner as they are adopted. The sequence of publication of opinions on these processes is linked to EFSA’s work programme set up on the basis of the applications received. The timing of publication of these opinions should not be seen as an order of priority, or in any way reflect on the quality of processes which EFSA has not yet evaluated for safety.


Plastic recycling processes

In 2008, EFSA prepared a guidance document which specifies the administrative and technical data that applicants should submit for the safety assessment of a plastic recycling process.

Following the publication of these guidelines EFSA’s Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes, Flavourings and Processing Aids (CEF) received a high number of applications for the evaluation of processes producing recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for use in food contact materials. The Panel subsequently published an opinion describing its safety assessment approach for PET recycling processes, specifying the evaluation criteria used in this approach.

The CEF Panel is assessing applications both on existing and new processes for all types of recycled plastics used in food contact materials. Existing processes are those which were in place before 17 April 2008 when the regulation on recycled plastic materials came into force. New processes are those put in place after this date.

EU framework

General requirements for all food contact materials are laid down in Framework Regulation EC 1935/2004. Good Manufacturing Practice for materials and articles intended to come in contact with food is described in Regulation EC 2023/2006.

In 2011, existing EU legislation for plastics used in food contact materials, was consolidated into a single instrument – Regulation EU 10/2011. This regulation sets an overall migration limit and includes a list of authorised substances for the manufacture of plastic food contact materials with their corresponding specific migration limits:

  • Overall Migration Limit - 10mg of substances/dm² (square decimetre) of the food contact surface for all substances that can migrate from food contact materials to food. In some cases the overall migration limit is expressed as 60 mg/kg food;
  • Specific Migration Limit (SML) for individual authorised substances fixed on the basis of a toxicological evaluation and a default exposure assumption.

These limits assume daily exposure throughout a lifetime for a person weighing 60 kg, to 1 kg of food packed in plastics containing the substance in the maximum permitted quantity.

Recycled plastics

Materials and articles made either entirely or partially from recycled plastics and used in contact with food should only be obtained from processes which have been assessed for safety by EFSA and authorised by the European Commission. Regulation EC 282/2008 establishes rules for the authorisation of processes used to recycle such materials.

In an initial authorisation phase, once EFSA has published all its opinions on these recycling processes, the Commission and Member States will decide whether or not to grant or refuse authorisation of the evaluated recycling processes. After that, recycled plastics used in food packaging, food containers and other food contact materials may only be obtained from processes which have been assessed for safety by EFSA and authorised by risk managers. The European Commission will then prepare a Register of authorised processes.

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