The use of recycled plastic is key for the food industry. At present, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the only plastic material with authorized recycling processes for the packaging of many foods, complying with all the safety requirements of the European Union (EU). The increase in its use by food companies is forcing the recycling industry to promote measures to increase its production in the coming years, mainly in two ways: to increase the volume of discarded plastic that reaches recycling plants and to continue innovating to increase the properties and useful life of the material.

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Advantages of using PET in food

Among the advantages offered by PET are its flexibility and lightness, its chemical and thermal resistance, its resistance to abrasion and breakage, and the fact that it is easy to clean. In addition, because it is transparent, it allows consumers to see what is inside. It is also highly resistant to breakage and has a lower production cost than other materials, which means lower water and energy consumption.

PET is transparent, resistant, lightweight and easy to clean, making it ideal for cold food containment

Today it is common to see PET in trays, jars, tuppers, cups or bottles, favoring the hermetic cold containment of beverages and food, as it prevents external agents from damaging the taste or spoiling the food. From the environmental point of view, the use of this type of plastic favors recycling, stimulates a lower consumption of resources for the manufacture of containers or for their logistic distribution.

Challenges for the coming years

By 2030, all plastic packaging distributed in Europe will be 100% recyclable. This is one of the commitments of the European Circular Economy Strategy, which will also require plastic beverage containers of up to three liters to contain at least 25% recycled material by 2025, and 30% from 2030 onwards. One of the key axes of this strategy is to understand that plastic is a fundamental element for the economy but that, once used, it should have many more lives, encouraging its recycling for different industries.

One of the key axes of the European Circular Economy Strategy is to understand that plastic is a fundamental element for the economy

However, the growing importance of PET poses two challenges. The first, practically already covered, is that of complying with the highest technical and safety requirements; the second has to do with guaranteeing a sufficient supply at a competitive price, so as to meet consumer needs and the sustainability commitments established by the companies.

The report: ‘r-PET: The best solution to ensure the circularity of packaging’, prepared by the Innovation and Development Center for the Circular Economy (CIDEC), indicates that there is a significant mismatch in Spain between supply and demand for food PET. Focusing only on bottles, the study estimates that the economy today needs 54 kilotonnes (kt) of this material but with the installed production capacity barely reaches 35 kt.

To balance this situation, in addition to improving recycling systems to increase the volume of material reaching recycling plants, the document points out that innovation must be encouraged, despite the fact that Spain already has an important infrastructure of entities that are actively researching into improving the properties of PET. This is the case, for example, of REPETCO, which has been able to develop its own patented, nature-friendly system for multilayer PET/PE food packaging. By means of a unique process, rPET pellets and rPET are generated that can be used again in the food industry with multilayer PET/PE trays and sheet packaging; in bottles for soft drinks or detergents; and in fibers for the textile and automotive industries.

Public support will also be essential to increase the production of recycled plastic. In this regard, the Circular Economy Action Plan, promoted by the Ministry of Ecological Transition, which includes waste management as one of its priority areas of action, is worth mentioning. At a European level, calls are being launched to finance projects that encourage cleaner and more circular business models in key materials such as plastics and plastic-based products.

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