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PLASTICS PACKAGING AND FOOD SAFETY


Are plastic food containers and packaging materials safe?

Yes. The plastic materials used to manufacture food contact items conform to the requirements of internationally recognised food and health authorities. The most widely used regulations are the USA's Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulations or the European Economic Community Directive on plastic materials and articles in contact with food.

What is the plastic used in food containers made from?

The plastics most commonly used for food packaging are Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE); High Density Polyethylene (HDPE); Polypropylene (PP); Polystyrene (PS) and Polyester (PET). All these plastics are derived from highly purified products of the petroleum industry.

Can plastic food packages be reused?

Plastic containers can be safely re-used for food storage. As with any type of container, glass, metal, pottery or plastic, normal good hygiene and food storage practises should be observed. Be aware that some highly spiced foods may stain some plastic containers. This, however does not constitute a health risk.

Can they be used in the microwave oven?

Microwaving in plastic containers does not present any health risk. In fact many plastic containers are designed for microwave use. We would not recommend using light weight plastic containers such as margarine tubs for microwave heating. This applies particularly for foods with a high fat or sugar content. These foods can reach very high temperatures in the microwave. At high temperatures, the thin plastic containers become soft and may be difficult to handle. This could result in scalds and burns.

Can I use clingwrap in the microwave?

Cling film can be safely used in microwave ovens. The plastic itself does not heat up in the microwave, but is heated if it is in direct contact with the food. Most cling film manufacturers recommend that, when covering a bowl for microwaving, you keep a gap of about 25 mm between the film and the food surface. This is particularly important with fatty foods, or foods with a high sugar content as these may become hot enough to melt the cling film.
(The web site www.plasticsinfo.org has a lot of useful information on plastics in the kitchen)

What are Plasticizers?

Plasticizers are substances that are added to some hard plastics to make them softer and more flexible. Most plastics used for food packaging do not contain any plasticizer at all. Of the common plastics used in packaging, PVC (poly vinyl chloride) is the only one that may contain a plasticizer. Plasticized PVC is widely used for a range of applications from flooring, via shoe soles and shower curtains to medical tubing and bags for intravenous drip solutions. In food contact applications, plasticized PVC is used for some cling films and in gaskets and seals for bottle caps and lids.

How safe are they (plasticizers) for food contact applications?

Because of the widespread use of plasticizers in food contact and medical applications, they are among the most extensively studied substances around in relation to health and safety. The plasticizers used for food packaging applications have the approval of the major health and safety authorities such as the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA as well as European food safety authorities.

Many plastic containers have a polymer identification numbers embossed on the base, sometimes within a triangle made from three arrows. The purpose of these symbols is to assist in sorting plastic containers for recycling. They were first recommended by the Society for the Plastics Industry (SPI) in the USA and have been adopted widely throughout the world. The use of the symbols is voluntary and it must be stressed that the purpose is to identify the type of plastic used. They are not a claim for recyclability. Whether a particular container or material can be effectively recycled or not, depends on local conditions.

  1. PET Fizzy drink bottles, fruit juice, water and cooking oil bottles, some clear dishwashing liquid bottles, clear trays and punnets.
  2. PE-HD Milk bottles, bottles for bleach and other household chemicals, bottle caps, buckets, crates and grocery bags.
  3. PVC Some clear bottles and trays, some cling films and industrial applications such as gutters and piping.
  4. PE-LD Most general purpose clear soft films and bags, some cling films, frozen vegetable bags, milk sachets, and soft squeezable bottles and caps.
  5. PP Margarine and yoghurt containers, bottle caps, reusable food storage containers.
  6. PS Some yoghurt and ice-cream tubs, disposable cups and glasses. Foamed protective packaging.
  7. Other Engineering plastics and containers from mixed materials that cannot be readily recycled.
F.A.C.S. Scientific Director. February 2009.


The FACS objective is to provide consumers with scientifically correct information on food and nutrition issues. Articles are written by trained technical food and nutrition professionals who source information from respectable scientific sources throughout the world. The Service is administered by SAAFoST - a non-profit organisation for food scientists and other technical food professionals. Information from the FACS site can be freely used on condition that the source is acknowledged. See www.foodfacts.org.za for further details and articles or call SANCU on weekdays between 08:30 and 12:00 for more information: Tel: +-27-12- 428 7122 / Fax: +27 (0) 86 672 8585

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