How Plastic Pollution Has Entered Our Food & Tips to Stop It

Plastic pollution

Aguilar, Ana. “Our World Encapsulated By Plastic.” 2021. png file.

Written by Emilee Petkus | Edited By: Carol Coutinho

February 5, 2021

Let’s get straight to the point, our world is entirely overwhelmed by plastic. Particles can be found in the water we drink and in the air that we breathe. It is on the mountaintops of the Alps, in the sandy beaches of Hawaii, and in the snow of the Arctic. (2) Undeniably, plastic pollution has infiltrated every corner of the earth. Recent studies have estimated that the world annually produces 320 million tonnes of this stuff and production is only expected to quadruple by 2050. (1)(2) This is a huge increase from the 1950s when we only produced around 1.5 million tonnes per year. (3)

While our plastic use has sky-rocketed, our methods of recycling have not. In fact, around 91% of plastic waste is sent straight to the landfills, resulting in its large accumulation within our environment. (4) Oftentimes, we throw it in the trash and forget about it; our waste is merely out of sight, out of mind. However, plastic is a different, more dangerous, story. Due to its durability, it lingers in our environment for years after it has been disposed of. While it does not completely degrade, it still breaks down into smaller particles known as micro-plastics, which are less than 5 mm in size, and nano-plastics that measure less than 0.1 mm. (5) When particles get this small, they are able to invade every aspect of our lives.

Plastics Are Carriers of Toxic Pollutants

Their small size is not the only threat micro-plastics pose. They also readily absorb large amounts of pollutants from their environment due to their hydrophobic surface and maintain the chemicals from the manufacturing process. (3) In fact, over 50% of all plastics contain hazardous monomers, additives, and chemical byproducts. (6) Can you believe we are storing our food in this stuff?

 Some common pollutants found on the surface include PCBs, DDT, pesticides, and fertilizers, in addition to the lead, BPA, and phthalates from the manufacturing process.  (3)(7)(8)(5) These pollutants can lead to endocrine disruption, liver damage, cancer, and neural complications. (1) Chemical toxicity is a major concern associated with plastic pollution. Studies show that increasing numbers of fish are already suffering from some of these ailments. It was recently discovered that 74% of fish exposed to micro-plastics exhibited stress in the liver and even cell death compared to the control group who exhibited no distress at all. (6)

Plastic Pollution in the ocean

Petkus, Emilee. “How Long Your Plastic Lingers In The Ocean.” 2021. png file.

Plastic Pollution Is Inside Our Food

Even though plastic is full of pollutants, we still store the majority of our food in it. Seems a bit unwise doesn’t it?  These chemicals can leach out when we warm the plastic, potentially contaminating what we eat. (2) Our quests for the healthiest diets become moot when the food itself becomes contaminated by its packaging. (2) Therefore, it is important that we begin searching for alternatives. Excessive food packaging is also a major driver of pollution, as it makes up one-third of household waste, with 80% of it being discarded after one use. (9)

It has been estimated that the average person consumes about a credit card’s worth of plastic (about 5 grams) per week. That is almost 74,000 micro-plastic particles within one year.

Turns out that we aren’t just storing our food in plastic, but we are eating and drinking it as well! (2) Seafood is a possible carrier due to the marine environment containing approximately 5 trillion plastic debris. (5) This mass amount of pollution is not only destroying numerous aquatic ecosystems, but it also poses a threat to humans as well. As fish provides almost three billion people worldwide with 20% of their animal protein intake, we cannot let one of our major food sources become smothered by plastic pollution. (5)

Aguilar, Ana. “How Much Plastic A Person Eats Per Week.” 2021. png file.

So far, plastic has been found within 11 out of the 25 most prominent commercial fish across the globe, with both farm-raised and wild-caught being affected. (5) There’s truly no escaping it. It has also been documented in bivalves, being oysters, clams, and mussels, which are all marine animals that we eat whole. (10) Researchers only expect this catastrophe to continually spread. The fish mistakingly ingest the particles, thinking they are food, and the plastic travels up the food chain through trophic transfer, meaning it moves from prey into the predator. (11) With humans at the top, this is quite worrisome. 

Some other foods that are known to contain plastic include table salt, honey, beer, and sugar. (3)

Since plastics are now broken down into such small sizes,  scientists speculate that they can easily transfer from the stomach to surrounding tissues. (2)(5) At the moment, scientists are unsure exactly what health issues may arise in humans, but research has been picking up speed within the last few years. At the moment, the repercussions of having plastic within our bodies remains a looming question mark. 

 

How to Live Plastic-Free Today

 Now that you have learned about how plastics are not only just harming the environment but possibly your body as well, you are probably wondering about what you can do to help. Well lucky for you, while this process may take some adjustments, most changes are not too difficult to make! The following are a couple of tips to avoid putting plastic into both the environment and your body.

How to reduce your plastic use

Aguilar, Ana. “How To Reduce Your Plastic Waste.” 2021. png file.

  • Drink tap water instead of bottled water 

Not only will this generate less waste, but water from plastic bottles actually contains twice the amount of micro-plastics compared to the tap. If you have concerns about drinking water from your faucet, try a filter to remove any possible pollutants. (2) When on-the-go, make sure to bring a refillable cup with you!

  • Ditch the straw

Straws and stirrers are major pollutants to our aquatic environment and can take up to 250 years to decompose! Instead, pick up a reusable alternative. Make sure to keep it in your bag or your car, so that you have it ready for any situation. For extra environmental advocacy bonus points, try out Sand Straw, as they donate 10% of their profits to help protect a marine animal of your choosing. (12)

  • Quit using cling wrap

Plastic film is unfortunately unrecyclable. Luckily, Bee’s Wraps are a wonderful alternative. They are 100% environmentally friendly and will keep your foods fresh. (12)

  • Say goodbye to storage bags 

Here is another single-use plastic that you cannot recycle. While you can reuse your bags multiple times, they will still end up in a landfill. Give Stasher’s silicone alternative a chance. Feel free to microwave, freeze, boil, and dishwash these bags. They will still remain in great shape! (2)

  • Bring reusable bags with you to the store

Always make sure you leave some totes in your car for any spontaneous trips. You can also buy small mesh bags for your fresh produce or bulk purchases as well. Check out Baggu, a sustainable company, for a wide selection of tote, produce, and compact bags.

Remember, you can bring reusable bags on any shopping trip, not just to the grocery store! (2)

  • Buy in bulk 

Not only will this save you money in the long run, but shopping in bulk will also cut down on your plastic packaging consumption. If you can, make sure to bring your own glass jars or mesh bags to use for the bulk bins. (16)

How to avoid plastic pollution

Aguilar, Ana. “How To Avoid Having Plastic On Your Food.” 2021. png file.

  • Cook more at home and avoid take-out 

This will help you avoid all the plastic containers that restaurants use. You can also use some of your bulk foods to create some tasty snacks, rather than buying individually wrapped ones. In the end, you will be saving money, reducing your plastic use, and feeling healthier as well. (2)

Pro-tip: If you are ordering take-out (like many of us are during the pandemic) ask the restaurant to not include the plastic cutlery.

  • Avoid frozen foods

Yes, we know that frozen veggies and meals are super convenient, but almost all packaging within the frozen aisle is either made of plastic or lined with it. Opting for the fresh alternatives allows you to avoid exposure to any harmful toxins when warming up your food, and you will create less waste. It is truly a win-win! (16)

  • Shop local when you can 

Most farmer’s markets will allow you to bring your own containers and bags, that way you can avoid all the unnecessary plastic packaging found in the store. Support your community while saving the planet! (16)

How to advocate for plastic pollution policies

Aguilar, Ana. “What Else Can You Do to Help.” 2021. png file.

  • Support organizations focused on reducing plastic pollution 

Take 3 for the Sea is an initiative aimed at cleaning plastic rubbish from beaches. All they ask is that you pick up three pieces of litter any time you visit a body of water. A very simple and easy task that makes a huge impact over time! In fact, they have helped remove 10 million pieces of plastic every year so far. (13)

Check out Loop and other related organizations, which offer well-known brands in reusable containers. Once finished, you simply send the containers back, and Loop will take care of everything else. A super simple way to shop plastic-free! (18)

  • Finally, advocate for environmental policies by your government and corporations

Canada recently announced its plan to ban all single-use plastic by the end of 2021. (14) Can you imagine the impact if every country followed suit?

While it may be hard to think about our lives without plastic, when England banned plastic shopping bags in 2015, the general public gradually shifted their opinions. Research shows that that the new law had a “policy spillover” effect as more people began to advocate “for other charges to reduce plastic waste.” Since this ban “catalyzed wider waste awareness,” it seems that policies are integral for our plastic-free future. (15) 

Companies are likewise following suit, as Coca-cola has pledged to adopt 100% recyclable packing by 2025. We must continue to push for these changes! 

 Plastic Pollution Must End Now

It is time that we stop focusing on the immediate and pay attention to the future of our planet. While research on microplastics’ effects on human health is still relatively new, the World Health Organization put out a statement in 2019 urging the importance of further studies. (2) Advocating against plastic pollution will not only save the environment and its creatures but will also protect the health of our own bodies.

Make sure to let us know if you plan on cutting back your plastic consumption through our instagram (@cookandculture)! We also would love to hear any additional tips you may have. 

Interested in becoming an even better environmental advocate? Check out this blog to learn how to stop palm oil deforestation.

*Cook & Culture is not affiliated with any brands or organizations mentioned within this post

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