We’ve all been there. Standing in an aisle of the grocery store or market trying to decide which brand to buy. How do you decide? Is it based solely on getting the lowest price per quantity or do you factor in the quality of the food and choose a brand you trust? Maybe you even splurge and go for the option that is labeled organic. But have you ever considered the quality of the packaging? Your good intentions may be thwarted by pesky plastic.
The recent 2019 Unwrapped Conference brought together scientists, public health leaders, plastic pollution advocates, and solutions-oriented companies from around the world to identify the human health threats associated with plastics and to strategize for solutions. According to the scientists, toxic chemicals can migrate from many types of food packaging directly into the food we eat. These chemicals cause a wide array of health issues ranging from lower IQs, poor reproductive outcomes, higher levels of anxiety and depression, a variety of cancers, even an increased risk of obesity, among many other concerns.
Reusables to the Rescue
The good news is we can avoid these chemicals if we choose to consume products out of healthier materials.
- One easy way to cut back on chemicals is to start using a Stainless Steel water bottle instead of drinking out of plastic or cans
- Bring your own Stainless Steel to-go containers when you order food out to avoid plastic, paper, or Styrofoam
- Bamboo utensil sets make a great alternative to plastic
- Stay away from plastic wrap by trying bee’s wrap instead!
- Pack a metal straw and insulated tumbler for your iced coffee or smoothie
- Fill up on coffee with a Stainless Steel tumbler instead of those sneaky plastic-lined paper cups
- Try cotton produce bags instead of relying on the thin plastic bags provided in store
- Don’t stop there! Start taking inventory of the plastic that comes into contact with your food most often and come up with a creative solution.
All Packaging is Not Created Equal
Imagine you’re in the grocery store again. This time you’re considering the packaging in addition to the content. What should you avoid and why? Plastic has a plethora of chemicals. Phthalates consist of a large group of chemicals used to make plastics more soft and flexible. However, they are also known to cause many of the health problems outlined earlier. Even paperboard contains phthalates. What about all those handy canned goods? Not if you’re trying to avoid BPA! If you’re thinking, let’s just ban the bad chemicals, think again. Over 11,000 chemicals are likely used to make the materials that come into contact with our food through transporting, manufacturing, processing, packaging, and/or cooking. Only a very small number of these have even been tested for safety using modern science. Even when a known hazardous chemical like BPA was banned in certain products, it is typically replaced with a very similar chemical, such as BPS, which has been found to cause its own range of serious health problems. This means we are in desperate need of a total system overhaul. The easiest solution is to go back to a time before plastic when we used glass packaging and bought less processed food. We can also support bulk stores that encourage customers to bring their own containers to fill.
Policies Can Protect Us
The plastic industry wants us to believe that recycling is the solution but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the problem. Although many cities and a number of states have started passing bans on specific single-use items such as bags or straws, we need more comprehensive bans to fully protect us.
- In March 2019, the European Parliament approved the Single-Use Plastics Directive which takes bold action against plastic pollution. Not only does it address the need for improved recycling, it also includes improvements in product design, a ban on the top 10 most littered items, labeling of plastic and impacts on products, and a strong extended producer responsibility (EPR) component. EPR helps ensure that the true cost of plastic is felt by producers by making them responsible the cost of waste management, clean-ups, and raising awareness. It also provides incentive for companies to invest in innovative design with non-toxic packaging.
- Canada recently announced a similar intention to reduce single-use plastic and implement stricter EPR regulations.
- In June 2019, the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act passed the first house and will go to a full floor vote in August or early September.
Some cities and states are adopting legislation that specifically target chemicals in packaging.
- In August 2018, the city of San Francisco passed the Plastic, Toxics and Litter Reduction Ordinance to ban the sale and distribution of single-use plastic and bio-plastic straws, utensils, stirrers and similar items, in addition to foodware containers that contain fluorinated chemicals.
- In June 2019, a bill to eliminate the use of phthalates and fluorinated chemicals was approved by both chambers of Maine’s legislature and is waiting for signature by the governor.
Other Ways to Limit your Risk
Transitioning away from traditional packaging is difficult to do and available alternatives vary depending on where you live. So in the meantime, here are some other ways you can limit your risk.
Guidelines from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences include:
- Avoid canned food – aim for fresh when possible
- Use glass or stainless steel instead of plastic
- Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7
- Avoid heating food or beverages in plastics, paperboard, or Styrofoam products
- Don’t let food sit unused for long periods of time, the longer it sits the more time for deterioration of the packaging and migration of chemicals
- Choose a Mediterranean diet, which is primarily plant-based foods
- Shop at a farmers market and support local merchants
- Buy in bulk, smaller packaging means a larger surface per volume ratio
If we all start demanding less plastic packaging from retailers and stricter regulations to protect our health, we can make using single-use plastic as strange as smoking on an airplane!