What plastic is food safe for vacuum forming?

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polypropylene (PP), and High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) are food-safe plastics for vacuum forming.

What plastic is food safe for vacuum forming

Basics of Food Safe Plastics

The realm of food-safe plastics is vast, intricate, and pivotal to ensuring the health and safety of consumers. As the usage of plastics in the food industry continues to grow, understanding their properties and safety metrics becomes increasingly essential.

Criteria for Food Safe Plastics

When it comes to plastics that come into contact with food, there are specific criteria they must meet:

  1. Non-Toxicity: The plastic should not leach harmful chemicals into the food. For instance, plastics like BPA (Bisphenol A) have been under scrutiny for potential health risks.
  2. Chemical Resistance: The plastic should be resistant to acids, alkalis, and other chemicals commonly found in foods. A plastic container holding a tomato sauce with a pH of 4 should not degrade or react with the acidic content.
  3. Temperature Tolerance: Depending on their usage, food-safe plastics must withstand both freezing temperatures (as low as -20°C) and hot temperatures (up to 120°C for microwavable plastics). This is crucial for plastics used in microwave containers or freezer storage.
  4. Durability: The material’s longevity is vital. A plastic container’s average lifespan should be around 10 years, given standard usage, without showing signs of wear or chemical degradation.
  5. Odor and Taste Neutral: The plastic should not impart any taste or odor to the food. It’s vital for preserving the original taste and aroma of the stored items.

Common Types of Food Safe Plastics

There are several plastics deemed safe for food contact. Here’s a detailed look at some of them:

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE):
    • Usage: Commonly used in soft drink bottles, salad dressing containers, and peanut butter jars.
    • Temperature Tolerance: -40°C to 70°C.
    • Cost: Approximately $1.50 per kilogram, making it a cost-effective choice for many manufacturers.
    • Advantages: Clear, lightweight, and recyclable.
    • Disadvantages: Not suitable for long-term storage of perishable items.
  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE):
    • Usage: Found in milk jugs, cereal box liners, and grocery bags.
    • Temperature Tolerance: -50°C to 110°C.
    • Cost: Roughly $1.60 per kilogram, slightly more expensive than PET.
    • Advantages: Strong, impact-resistant, and can be translucent.
    • Disadvantages: Can absorb flavors and odors over time.
  3. Polypropylene (PP):
    • Usage: Commonly used in yogurt containers, straws, and bottle caps.
    • Temperature Tolerance: -20°C to 130°C, making it suitable for microwaveable containers.
    • Cost: Costs around $1.40 per kilogram.
    • Advantages: High melting point, flexibility, and fatigue resistance.
    • Disadvantages: Can become brittle over time.


Vacuum Forming Process

Vacuum forming is a popular method in the manufacturing industry for producing plastic parts. It’s especially favored for its speed, simplicity, and the ability to produce large quantities without substantial time or cost investments.

Overview and Principles of Vacuum Forming

Vacuum forming is a simplified version of thermoforming. Here’s how it generally works:

  1. Heating the Plastic Sheet: A plastic sheet, typically with a thickness ranging from 0.25 to 6.00 mm, is heated until it becomes pliable. The heating process usually takes around 10 to 12 minutes, depending on the material and its thickness.
  2. Molding: Once heated, the plastic sheet is placed over a mold. The mold’s design dictates the final shape of the plastic piece.
  3. Applying Vacuum: A vacuum is then applied, drawing the plastic sheet snugly against the mold. This is where the process gets its name. The vacuum’s strength is typically around 760 mmHg, which is equivalent to atmospheric pressure, ensuring that the plastic conforms precisely to the mold.
  4. Cooling and Solidifying: The plastic sheet cools and solidifies, retaining the shape of the mold. Cooling times can vary, but a typical cooling period for a standard-sized product might be 15 minutes.
  5. Trimming: Once cooled, excess plastic is trimmed away, and the final product is revealed.

Advantages of this method include its speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. A single vacuum forming machine can produce hundreds of items per hour, with energy costs as low as $0.05 per item depending on the material and size.

Factors Influencing the Safety of Vacuum Formed Plastics

Safety is paramount, especially when producing items that come into contact with food. Here are factors that play a pivotal role in ensuring vacuum-formed plastics’ safety:

  1. Choice of Plastic Material: As discussed, food-safe plastics like PET, HDPE, and PP should be prioritized. Using inappropriate materials can lead to chemical leaching, posing health risks.
  2. Quality of the Mold: The mold’s quality affects the plastic’s finish. Molds with impurities or defects can compromise the final product’s quality. High-quality molds, which might cost upwards of $1000 for intricate designs, are vital for achieving a flawless finish.
  3. Heating Temperature: Overheating the plastic can cause chemical degradation. It’s crucial to maintain an optimal temperature range, specific to each type of plastic. For instance, PET’s optimal heating temperature lies between 120°C to 160°C.
  4. Cooling Rate: Rapid cooling can induce stresses in the plastic, making it more susceptible to cracks and degradation. It’s essential to ensure a steady, controlled cooling rate to maintain the material’s integrity.
  5. Machine Maintenance: Regularly checking and maintaining the vacuum forming machine ensures consistent quality. For instance, a vacuum pump with a lifespan of 8-10 years might require replacement or maintenance to ensure peak efficiency.
  6. Post-Processing: Activities like trimming should be done carefully to prevent contamination. The average trimming speed, for example, is around 60 cm/min for precise cuts, ensuring no plastic shards are left behind.

Types of Food Safe Plastics for Vacuum Forming

The choice of plastic type plays a pivotal role in vacuum forming, especially when intended for food contact. Different plastics offer various advantages, limitations, and cost implications. Here’s a closer look at some food-safe plastics ideal for vacuum forming.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)

Polyethylene Terephthalate, commonly known as PET or PETE, is one of the most widely used plastics in the food industry.

  • Usage: Typically found in bottled beverages, salad dressing containers, and fruit trays.
  • Temperature Tolerance: PET can withstand temperatures ranging from -40°C to 70°C, making it versatile for both cold and room-temperature storage.
  • Cost: At approximately $1.50 per kilogram, PET offers an economical solution for mass production.
  • Advantages: PET is lightweight, clear, and 100% recyclable. Its clarity makes it an ideal choice for products where visibility is essential.
  • Disadvantages: PET isn’t recommended for hot-fill applications or long-term storage of certain perishable items, as it can allow oxygen, which might reduce the shelf life of some products.

Polypropylene (PP)

Polypropylene, or PP, is known for its durability and flexibility.

  • Usage: Popularly used in yogurt containers, microwaveable meal trays, and bottle caps.
  • Temperature Tolerance: PP has an impressive temperature range of -20°C to 130°C, making it a top choice for microwaveable products.
  • Cost: PP’s cost hovers around $1.40 per kilogram, offering a balance of quality and affordability.
  • Advantages: Beyond its temperature resistance, PP is also resistant to fatigue, meaning it retains its shape after twisting or bending.
  • Disadvantages: PP can become brittle over prolonged exposure to UV light, so it’s not the best for products stored under direct sunlight.

High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

High-Density Polyethylene stands out due to its strength and chemical resistance.

  • Usage: Commonly found in milk jugs, cereal box liners, and some squeeze bottles.
  • Temperature Tolerance: HDPE can tolerate a temperature spectrum of -50°C to 110°C.
  • Cost: With a price point around $1.60 per kilogram, HDPE is slightly pricier than PET or PP but offers superior durability.
  • Advantages: HDPE’s chemical resistance means it doesn’t easily react with acidic or alkaline substances. This resistance ensures the contents remain uncontaminated and fresh.
  • Disadvantages: HDPE can potentially absorb flavors and odors over time, which might not be ideal for some food storage applications.

Polystyrene (PS) – When Treated Appropriately

Polystyrene is versatile but requires careful handling to ensure it’s food-safe.

  • Usage: Used in some takeout containers, disposable cutlery, and certain cold drink cups.
  • Temperature Tolerance: PS’s effective range is between -20°C to 95°C, making it unsuitable for hot foods or beverages.
  • Cost: Polystyrene is relatively cheap, coming in at roughly $1.20 per kilogram.
  • Advantages: PS is lightweight and can be clear or colored. It also acts as a good insulator, keeping cold items cold.
  • Disadvantages: When exposed to high temperatures, PS can leach chemicals. Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure PS containers are used within their safe temperature range.


Polystyrene (PS) – When Treated Appropriately

Considerations When Choosing Plastics for Vacuum Forming

Choosing the appropriate plastic for vacuum forming is more than just selecting a material that fits the mold. Several crucial factors come into play, which can impact the quality, durability, and safety of the final product. Here’s a deep dive into these considerations.

Temperature Resistance

Temperature resistance is paramount, especially when the formed plastic will come into contact with various temperature ranges, either during processing or end-use.

  • Why It’s Important: Plastics that can’t withstand specific temperatures can warp, melt, or even release harmful chemicals. For instance, a container meant for hot soup should not deform or leach chemicals when in contact with the hot substance.
  • Real-world Scenario: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) may start to decompose at temperatures as low as 140°C. On the other hand, Polyetheretherketone (PEEK) can resist temperatures up to 343°C. This stark difference can determine the application of each plastic.
  • Measuring Temperature Resistance: The Vicat Softening Point and Heat Distortion Temperature are common tests to determine a plastic’s temperature resistance.

Chemical Resistance

The plastic’s ability to resist chemical interactions is essential, especially when storing or packaging reactive substances.

  • Why It’s Important: A plastic that reacts with the stored substance can contaminate the content, leading to potential health hazards. Moreover, the integrity of the plastic can be compromised, leading to leaks or breaks.
  • Real-world Scenario: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is favored for storing cleaning agents because of its high resistance to a wide range of chemicals, ensuring the container’s longevity and the content’s purity.
  • Measuring Chemical Resistance: This is usually done by immersing the plastic in the chemical in question and measuring changes in weight, appearance, or mechanical properties over time.

Physical Properties

The physical properties, like strength, flexibility, and transparency, often dictate the plastic’s suitability for certain applications.

  • Why It’s Important: The physical properties determine how the final product will perform in its intended application. For example, a brittle plastic is unsuitable for a container meant to be frequently opened and closed.
  • Real-world Scenario: Polypropylene (PP) is often chosen for living hinges (like the cap on a shampoo bottle) because of its fatigue resistance, which allows it to bend back and forth without breaking.
  • Measuring Physical Properties: Tensile tests can determine strength, elongation tests for flexibility, and light transmittance tests for transparency.

Physical Properties

Safety Protocols and Best Practices

Ensuring safety in the vacuum forming process is paramount. Adherence to safety protocols not only guarantees the integrity and quality of the final product but also safeguards the health and wellbeing of the personnel involved. Here are some critical safety protocols and best practices in vacuum forming.

Proper Storage and Handling

Properly storing and handling plastics before the vacuum forming process is a critical step towards ensuring the quality of the end product.

  • Why It’s Important: Improper storage can lead to contamination or degradation of the plastic, which might compromise its properties and safety.
  • Real-world Scenario: Storing Polystyrene (PS) sheets in direct sunlight can lead to premature aging, making the material brittle and less effective during the vacuum forming process.
  • Recommendations:
    • Store plastic sheets in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
    • Use gloves when handling the sheets to prevent oils or contaminants from the skin transferring to the material.
    • Ensure the storage area is free from volatile chemicals, as some plastics can absorb odors.

Avoiding Contamination during the Vacuum Forming Process

Maintaining a contaminant-free environment during the vacuum forming process is vital.

  • Why It’s Important: Any contaminants present can become embedded into the plastic during the vacuum forming, leading to defects, poor aesthetics, or potential health hazards.
  • Real-world Scenario: A food tray formed with plastic that had dust or debris on its surface can lead to contamination of the food that comes into contact with it.
  • Recommendations:
    • Clean the plastic sheets with a mild detergent or isopropyl alcohol before the forming process.
    • Maintain a clean working environment by regularly cleaning the vacuum forming machine and surrounding area.
    • Use air purifiers or positive pressure in the working area to keep airborne contaminants to a minimum.

Quality Control and Assurance

Ensuring that every product meets the set standards is crucial for maintaining reputation and customer trust.

  • Why It’s Important: Quality control ensures consistency, while quality assurance ensures that the final product is safe for its intended use.
  • Real-world Scenario: A company producing PET bottles for beverages needs to ensure that each bottle can hold the liquid without leaking, has the required strength, and doesn’t contaminate the beverage.
  • Recommendations:
    • Implement regular checks at different stages of the vacuum forming process.
    • Use tools like micrometers and spectrometers to measure thickness and chemical consistency.
    • Regularly audit the entire process, ensuring machines are calibrated, and staff is well-trained.

Scroll to Top