Plastic packaging is central to pretty much every environmental debate. It’s also the star of the show when it comes to several health scares — including whether or not it can cause cancer. And let’s be honest, anytime plastic is written about in the press, it’s never the subject of a raving review.
Most recently, plastic food packaging has made the news after a research project revealed it contains 154 harmful chemicals banned in the EU — but which are still legal in US food packaging. After the shocking news relating to the average Americans health, sources are warning everyone to steer clear of plastic packaging in particular.
In this blog, we’ll provide further details on the offending chemicals and what health risks they pose. Plus, we’ll be dishing out advice on what you should do the next time you visit the store or order a takeaway online to make sure you pick up protective packaging.
Our Relationship with Plastic
It’s safe to say that we should (in theory) have been put off using plastic packaging by now. Surely we should be avoiding a material that seems to be single-handedly killing our planet and posing health risks as serious as cancer at all costs? But the figures suggest otherwise.
For example, more than half a billion plastic straws are used each day worldwide, contributing to the 141 million metric tons of plastic thrown out in a given year. So, what is it about plastic that seems so enticing?
Well, plastic has many desirable characteristics that explain — but by no means justify — its commercial popularity. Here are a few key factors that have solidified plastic as a popular material for use in mass, global production:
- Plastic is cheap and easy to produce. In the same way that opportunistic thieves take advantage of a shady situation, manufacturers continue to produce plastic products because of ease — even though they know it’s wrong.
- Most forms of plastic are incredibly durable yet moldable. These combined characteristics mean that plastic can be formed to create almost anything. This includes products with unique shapes like bendy straws and children’s toys.
- For the most part, plastic is hygienic. This factor has led to the use of plastic in a variety of formats — including the creation of disposable healthcare items and sanitary facilities like public baby changing tables.
Plastic packaging, specifically, has been adopted by many shipping and takeaway companies. Unlike regulated sectors such as healthcare, these industries come under constant scrutiny for their excessive plastic use — which is neither necessary or controlled. And it’s no surprise that the media shames these corporations as 60% of roadside litter is linked to food packaging — making plastic food packaging a street epidemic. Takeaways are guilty of much of our single-plastic use that eventually ends up in a landfill and takes thousands of years to biodegrade.
Intrigued about what materials landfills across the world currently house? Well, the food sector uses different types of plastic that are non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, such as:
- Polystyrene — used for takeout containers
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) — used for water bottles
While countries like the UK are on track to dramatically reduce plastic use across the nation, America is falling far behind.
The UK has already targeted the retail sector by creating a 5p charge on plastic carrier bags. The positive results of this taxation have encouraged the British government to raise the fee to 10p in 2020. Britain will also be clamping down on other single-use plastics next year, including items used in takeaways such as drink stirrers and plastic straws.
After April, it will be illegal for businesses in the UK to provide customers with these items forcing them to seek food packaging alternatives.
154 Legal Chemicals That Are Contaminating Your Food
Don’t get us wrong — the environmental impact of plastic packaging is enough to cause outrage. But it seems that the US is also falling short when it comes to health regulations.
A study which appeared in Food Additives and Contaminants compared the EU’s guidance on chemicals versus current US legislation. The results weren’t pretty. In total, 154 chemicals that are deemed hazardous by the EU are legal to use in US food packaging. The US is becoming fairly slack on the inclusion of harmful substances to both the earth and its inhabitants.
US food packaging can include chemicals such as:
- Tributyltin — A compound that is toxic to the organs. High exposure to this chemical can damage a human’s reproductive and central nervous system, amongst other side effects such as weakening the immune system.
- Perchlorate — This chemical may lead to adverse effects in twelve areas of the body. Particularly, for those that are pregnant, perchlorate can disrupt the thyroid function of a developing fetus or infant.
What’s the Alternative?
Avoiding plastic packaging altogether is a good start. But instead of being scared to buy anything packed in packaging, you should learn to assess whether or not the item poses potential harm. How can you do that? Take a look at these criteria:
A. What material is the item packaged in? If it’s plastic, automatically dismiss it. If it’s paper, think about the distributor (these can also contain harmful chemicals sometimes). If it’s glass, it’s worth paying the extra money.
B. Do I trust the supplier? Ask yourself this question. Shopping at a wholesale store that sells thousands of independent brands is riskier than buying from an openly moralistic shopping chain that keeps a close watch on its internal customers. Check out this retailers report to figure out which chains are prioritizing customer health (and those that aren’t).
C. Is the brand affiliated with a good manufacturer? Double check where the food brand sources their packaging. Is the brand associated with a US equivalent of Takeaway Packaging — an environmental food packaging supplier that only uses natural resources in their products? Ensuring that the product supply chain is clean is vital.