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Catch-22 of the Plastic Packaging Tax

The UK Government’s imminent Plastic Packaging Tax has created a frustrating Catch-22. The problem is that, for trays containing food intended to be heated with the lid kept on, it is not currently possible to produce a heat-sealable lidding film made with a recycled material approved by EFSA (European Food Safety Authority).

The tax on the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30% PCR (post-consumer recycled content) comes into force in April 2022. The tax does not apply to plastic packaging, if it contains at least 30% recycled plastic1. In the case of lidding films for elevated temperature applications, this requirement is currently not possible to meet. 

The issues with lidding film that needs to stay on during microwave or oven heating include:

  • There is no EFSA-approved recycling process for PCR used at elevated temperatures available.
  • If the currently approved PCR is used, the material has to be sandwiched within a “functional barrier” of virgin plastic to avoid direct contact with food in order to prevent potential contamination. However, the needed thickness to achieve a functional barrier would significantly increase the amount of plastic packaging being used. 

The stated aim of the Plastic Packaging Tax is to provide an economic incentive for businesses to use recycled material in the production of plastic packaging and to create greater demand for this material. 

That, in turn, would stimulate increased levels of recycling and collection of plastic waste, diverting it away from landfill or incineration.

KM lidding film with PCR content

But the issues detailed above make it difficult and impossible in many cases to use plastic packaging with at least 30% recycled material.

That is not to say you cannot obtain packaging with the targeted amount of PCR content. In fact, we currently can provide lidding film with PCR content for applications that do not require heating, for example, a K Peel lidding film for soft fruits packaged in pulp or clear plastic trays.

Brand requirements and consumer perception may also encourage some companies to adopt PCR for non-heated applications, despite the associated issues.

Lobbying is taking place to gain exclusions where the application and combined food migration regulations do not legally permit PCR to be included. An example would be PET* plastic packaging for heated applications, such as heating your ready meals in the microwave or oven without removing the lid. However, there is no guarantee it will be successful. 

Reduced barrier functionality

With regard to our Catch-22 (no approved PCR is available for heated applications) there are some key issues:

  1. The PCR would need to be obtained from a “super-clean” mechanical recycling process approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). So far, none of the recycling processes evaluated at EFSA has been approved for food contact use at high temperatures (heating in the pack).
  1. The thinness of the lidding film that may prevent its barrier functionality (from the PCR or any other potential contaminant) from ever being effective enough. 

As Dr. Elisabeth Sprengel, Manager Product Stewardship, Mitsubishi Polyester Film GmbH, told us: “The sealable, peelable layer is much thinner than the cover layers commonly used in thermoformed trays; approximately 1/10th the thickness. 

“The characteristic that makes the seal peelable - a lower glass transition temperature - makes this layer far more permeable to contaminants. Based on our experience with migration testing, we believe peelable layers will never qualify as functional barriers for elevated temperatures.”

  1. PCR from chemical recycling is currently not within the scope of the relevant regulation.

The consequences of the issues include:

  • More packaging waste – due to thicker films required to enable PCR to be incorporated. 
  • A push to non-plastic alternatives, which may have a higher carbon footprint and result in more food waste.

Currently for KM, the tax is not legally possible to avoid in these high temperature applications – with no immediate prospect of development or regulation to allow this position to change.

Not all of the issues, however, are insurmountable. For example, in our previous article “The challenges of PCR in lidding film for high temperatures” we looked at how chemical recycling could, in fact, achieve the same level of safety as with virgin plastic. That is to say as long as it fell with the scope of new or amended regulations and that enough volume was available (which is not the case at present). 

But, as things stand, the Plastic Packaging Tax is likely to generate income for the Government from an already under pressure industry, but not achieve its main objectives. And that’s a big catch, too.

*PET (short for polyethylene terephthalate, the chemical name for polyester) is a clear, strong, and lightweight plastic used extensively in food packaging. It is widely recycled.

1The UK Plastic Packaging Tax is unrelated to the ”Plastic Tax“ in the EU. 

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