Previously all use of recycled plastics to package, store, carry or dispense any food items was prohibited in India under its Plastic Waste Management Rules. But in September last year, FSSAI released draft plastic waste management guidelines proposing to allow the use of recycled plastic for ready-to-eat or drink products.
According to FSSAI CEO Arun Singhal, this revision was designed as a positive move towards more efficient management of the country’s massive plastic waste, reported by a 2021 Minderoo Foundation report to stand at some 5.58 million tonnes annually.
“We are in the process of setting standards for recycled plastics, [and] as soon as that is done I think all of us can move towards reducing the plastic load of food industry in the country," he said.
However, it wasn’t long before scientific experts burst FSSAI’s bubble of optimism, with a group of multi-industry experts from the Centre for Science and Environment, the Recycle India Foundation, the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) and even the Delhi High Court participating in a high-level forum voicing concerns regarding the new changes held by legal platform LawWiser.
“[Amongst our main concerns] include the possibility that the majority of the recycling industry in India uses recycling machines of inferior quality which could possible make plastic more toxic, [as this would be dangerous to human health if brought into contact with food or drink,” said the experts.
“Specific standards for plastic recycling have also not yet been set in India, so it will be difficu;t to understand the recycled plastic’s composition, and continuous recycling [could backfire] if quality degrades too far or more toxins are produced.”
The experts also highlighted that in countries where this is allowed such as the United States, manufacturers hold the responsibility to ensure that the recycled plastic is safe for usage – but in India, it is also not clear where the responsibility for this lies as of yet.
In response to these concerns, as of January 2022 FSSAI has issued a new update to the draft amendment, mandating that all recycled plastics used need to adhere to national standards, and included a new five-page Annexure with details on these standards.
“[The relevant sub-regulation shall be substituted to show that] products made of recycled plastics including carry bags may be used for packaging, storing, carrying or dispensing of food products as and when standards and guidelines are framed by [FSSAI],” said FSSAI Advisor (Science and Standards Division) Bhaskar Narayan who signed off on the new directive.
“Such packaging materials shall also comply with any other national standards or regulations as applicable. Accordingly, the approved guidelines for recycling of post-consumer PET for food contact applications and acceptance criteria for recycled PET resin for food contact applications [as listed in Annexure 1] is also made effective for implementation].”
New national standards
The standards in Annexure 1 as laid out by FSSAI specify the specific materials and recycling processes by which recycled plastic materials can be designated as ‘Food-Grade Recycled PET (FG rPET)’, resin that has undergone a validated decontamination process and has reached suitable purity to directly hold foods and beverages.
“A conventional recycling process, i.e. a mechanical operation where PET flakes are [processed but contaminants are not removed], should not be used to make food contact materials,” said FSSAI.
“Only processes that can decontaminate such as the Super-Clean Recycling Process (that uses high heat or vacuum), Melt-in Recycling Process (combination of high heat and vacuum), (Paste-in Recycling Process (chemical distillation, vacuum degassing, etc.) or Enhanced Chemical Recycling Process (chemical reaction or purification) can be used to make FG rPET.
“[Testing of the recycled plastic will also be necessary], such as the Challenge Test, the Extraction Test and the Migration Test to ensure that the recycled plastic content is safe and any potential substances migrating into food or beverages are within migration limits.”
It also specified that all recycling process operators and FG rPET manufacturers will need to apply and register with FSSAI moving forward, and will be required to submit supply chain communication and other supporting documents for review.