TAP Article: Food-Safe Plastics

Plastic plays an essential role in our everyday lives. Everywhere you look, plastic is used as an alternative to many other materials because of its ability to be formed into any shape and impact resistance as well as its cost-effectiveness and weight. Plastics are well-suited to a wide variety of applications and industries, especially when it comes to food preparation and storage. Whether you work in the food and beverage industry or you are a DIY enthusiast that likes to fashion plastic into customized everyday household items, it is important to understand what food-safe plastics are and how they should be used. In this guide, we explore which plastics are food-safe and approved by the FDA so that you can stay in compliance.

FDA Plastic Regulations
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for determining whether and how certain manufactured materials may be used in contact with food and related products. Each year, the FDA published a series of regulations that provide certain specifications regarding composition, additives, and properties that are acceptable for food contact applications. Any material which meets these standards can be listed as FDA-compliant, but it is your responsibility to use the product in a manner that is compatible with FDA guidelines. You may also submit a food contact formulation (FCF) notification to verify whether specific components may be legally used. To learn more, visit the FDA guidelines for Ingredients and Packaging and consult the Food Contact Article to determine the compliance of certain components.

Guide to Food-Safe Plastics

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – a type of resin that is commonly used in plastic fabrication for food contact.

Features and Characteristics:

  • Excellent level of wear resistance
  • High flexural modulus and strength
  • Superior level of dimensional stability
From two-liter soda bottles to peanut butter jars, PET is widely used to manufacture products we use on an everyday basis. This naturally transparent and semi-crystalline plastic is the preferred material in both consumer-related and industrial applications. PET is also easy to mold into any shape and seal, making it reusable and versatile. You won’t have to worry about PET degrading when it comes into contact with food or beverages. Plus, it resists corrosion and repels the microorganisms that can contaminate food and cause foodborne illnesses. The FDA has approved both virgin and post-consumer recycled PET for food contact.

Polypropylene (PP) – a synthetic resin made from a combination of propylene monomers.

Features and Characteristics:
  • High melting point and thermal resistance
  • Will not react with acids, bases, or detergents
  • Resistant to fracturing and stress, even when flexed
Polypropylene plastic is widely used in everyday products, such as reusable food storage containers and other food packaging products. PP gives PET a run for its money and is quickly growing in popularity. Though PET has more clarity, compared to other polymers, PP has the lowest density and can result in a larger amount of parts from the same amount of material. PP is also the lightest option of all polymers, resulting in lower fuel consumption and lower emissions. With its versatile temperature range, PP can be used in the freezer and microwave without compromising the integrity of the plastic package. The FDA began approving PP for food contact applications in 2013.

High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – a resin produced from the gaseous monomer ethylene under high pressures and temperatures.

Features and Characteristics:
  • High strength-to-density ratio
  • Resistant to mildew, mold, rotting, and insects
  • Resistant to corrosion, cracking, and weathering
Of all the household plastics we use, HDPE is the most common. On your next trip to the grocery store, you will find a wide variety of HDPE plastic bottles, milk jugs, butter containers, cereal box liners, and much more. HDPE plastic is widely used for short-term storage, especially in terms of perishable products. There are at least five varieties of HDPE to choose from: low-density polyethylene (LDPE), linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), very high molecular weight (VHMW), and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMW). The FDA has approved virgin HDPE as a food-safe plastic and sanctioned recycled HDPE for food contact on a case-by-case basis. TAP carries several types of polyethylene.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – a biologically and chemically resistant synthetic resin made by polymerizing vinyl chloride.

Features and Characteristics:
  • High impact and tensile strength
  • Excellent processing performance
  • Resistant to chemicals, grease, and oils
This economical and versatile plastic polymer is widely used to manufacture packaging for tamper-resistant containers and shrink wrap for a variety of food products. Vinyl plastic is easily fabricated into a wide range of rigid and flexible products. When manufacturers want to produce a softer, more flexible product, they commonly add phthalate plasticizers to vinyl. These plasticizers have been thoroughly studied and found to pose no risk to human health at typical exposure levels.

Polystyrene (PS) – a colorless, synthetic plastic polymer used as both a solid and a foam.

Features and Characteristics:
  • Resistant to bacterial growth
  • Cost-effective and easy to handle
  • Resistant to moisture and water damage
Many of the deli trays, egg cartons, fast food containers, and plastic cups that you use are made of polystyrene plastic. PS plastic is made by polymerization of styrene, a substance that occurs naturally in many of the foods we eat. What makes polystyrene uniquely useful is its characteristics as a foam and its ability to be easily cast into molds for yogurt cups, plastic cutlery, and other products. The FDA has approved of polystyrene in food contact applications for decades.

Polycarbonate (PC) – a synthetic thermoplastic resin used for molded products, films, and other applications.

Features and Characteristics:
  • Good heat resistance and thermal stability
  • High impact resistance and dimensional stability
  • Half the weight and 250 times the strength of glass
This naturally transparent thermoplastic is made widely available in a variety of commercial food applications. Many of the reusable water bottles and tableware we use daily are made of polycarbonate plastic. In recent years, many researchers have studied the use and potential hazards of Bisphenol A (BPA), a key ingredient used to manufacture polycarbonate products. Although the potential migration of BPA into food is extremely low, BPA-free polycarbonates have become particularly popular for applications involving perishable food and beverages. The FDA has approved certain polycarbonates for food contact and continuously amends its food additive regulations to reflect when specific uses of an additive have been abandoned. PC products are usually labeled as a #7 plastic resin.

Resin Identification Codes
  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  4. Low-density Polyethylene (LDPE)
  5. Polypropylene (PP)
  6. Polystyrene (PS)
  7. Other plastic resin
Food-safe plastics represent a large segment of the thermoplastic industry, and their many characteristics make them surprisingly versatile materials. Now that you know much more about the characteristics and common uses of these plastics, we hope that you will consider exploring the extensive selection of plastics available at TAP Plastics. Before you make any final decision, we recommend that you consult the current FDA regulations to ensure compliance and safety. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or concerns.