Plastic Packaging. Graphic by Grace Cardinale. 2021
Plastic packaging: We see it everywhere. On our grocery store shelves, in our pantries, bathrooms and laundry rooms, there sit millions of plastic jugs, bags, and wrappers that can take up to 500 years to decompose. Can you imagine your great-great-great-grandchild picking up plastic waste that someone from the year 2021, maybe even you yourself, left behind?
We don’t think about how much plastic waste we’re creating, nor do we think about the long term impact non-biodegradable plastics have on our health and our planet. The plastic packages for our food are often only in our view for a short time: while they are in our shopping carts at the grocery store, while we are stacking our groceries into our closed cupboards & freezers, and, finally, while we are unwrapping our food and throwing the packaging into the garbage bin. The plastic packages for food that we rely on far too heavily every single day often go without a second thought. It’s time to give them a second thought.
CHANGING COURSE: WHAT YOU CAN USE INSTEAD OF PLASTIC PACKAGES
It may seem impossible at times to cut back on our usage of plastic packages for food. When so many of the pre-prepared meals that we love come sealed in plastic trays or crinkly plastic bags, it’s hard to feel like we even have a choice in the matter. However, anything can be accomplished more easily when you start small and have a community backing you up and joining in.
Instead of reaching for that box of coffee pods at the grocery store, search online for a brew you’ll love that comes packaged as grounds in a biodegradable bag. Before you throw that plastic bag of steamable veggies into your shopping cart, ask yourself if you can get the same veggies from the produce section, or even better, from your local farmers’ market. There are so many small ways that we as individuals can implement plastic-free habits into our daily lives as society works towards creating a world that will be far less reliant on plastic packaging.
Paper Bags & Tote Bags
One of the biggest culprits of plastic pollution today is single-use plastic grocery bags. While not technically “packaging,” they are used to transport almost all of the food we buy from the grocery store and are quickly thrown away before we even finish consuming the food bought. Many states in the USA have successfully implemented a ban on single-use plastic bags, encouraging people to either purchase reusable tote bags or pay a small fee to be provided with a paper bag. Eight states have enacted legislation banning single-use plastic bags: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont–with California being the first to do so in 2014. Paper bags are biodegradable and recyclable, and reusable tote bags can be used dozens-even hundreds of times before they’re worn out enough for the trash.
Refillable Water Bottles
Single-use plastic water bottles burst onto the scene in 1973 when Nathaniel Wyath patented the polyethylene terephthalate bottle. Plastic bottles and jars represent about 75 percent of all plastic containers, by weight, in the United States, and many of them end up as either litter or landfill. Americans alone use approximately 50 billion water bottles each year, and only 9% of those get recycled due to a lack of incentives and lack of awareness. Over 60 million water bottles are thrown out every day in the United States, sent either to a landfill, an incinerator, or left to decompose on the ground over the next few hundred years. Refillable water bottles can offset these harmful statistics by preventing you from sending hundreds of single-use plastic bottles to the trash yourself and lowering your carbon footprint.
When you have the option to choose between buying a product in a glass vs plastic container, we strongly encourage you to opt for glass. Mustard, grape jelly, minced garlic, and dozens of other products are often available in both plastic and glass containers, depending on the brand. Reach for that glass jar so that you can reuse it instead of sending more plastic to the landfill.
When looking for a container option to store your leftovers, fresh-picked berries, spices, etc., try buying (or making!) yourself a ceramic container. Yes, plastic tupperware gets thrown away and ends up in landfills far too often too. Ceramic containers are great for storing food and also beneficial as mixing bowls because they’re super easy to clean.
More Steps You Can Take
Once you get into the habit of noticing plastic packages for food, especially unnecessary plastic packaging, you’ll find it easier to think of alternatives! Rather than buying that plastic bag of shredded cheese, buy a block of cheese sold wrapped in paper and shred it at home! There is also a wide variety of spices that you can grow yourself, rather than buying them dried in plastic shakers, such as parsley and chives! Many of the frozen dinners you see in those sectioned plastic trays can be made from scratch at home; They’ll taste better and, in many cases, cost less!
HOW PLASTIC PACKAGES FOR FOOD AFFECT OUR PLANET
Plastics have quickly become one of the most harmful pollutants to our planet. In almost every form, plastic packaging poses some form of threat to our ecosystems.
- Plastic in the ocean can be mistaken for food by marine wildlife since the material reflects light similarly to many fish scales. When ingested by animals, plastics can release toxins into their bodies and even cause fatal blockages. When birds feed their babies the fish that have been poisoned by plastic toxins, the baby birds can also become sick or die. The eggs of birds that have ingested plastic toxins can also have softened shells, leading to death before the baby bird has even hatched.
- Land animals can also unintentionally ingest plastic waste, resulting in the same dangerous outcomes for them. Animals can also be choked or receive lacerations from littered plastic packaging, such as plastic six-pack rings and plastic bottle cap rings.
- Plastic waste sent to and buried in landfills can leach harmful chemicals that spread into groundwater.
- Plastic packaging takes hundreds of years to decompose when left to the elements, so these threats are posed for the entire life cycle of most plants and animals.
WE NEED TO REANALYZE RECYCLING
The fact that most plastics are recyclable was largely responsible for how heavily they were initially produced. A durable, inexpensive, AND recyclable container seemed like the perfect option in the 20th century for food packaging.
However, this becomes an issue when recycling backfires and the amount of plastic littering our earth piles up each day.
Recycling rates are declining in the United States, and there are several factors to blame. First of all, many plastics are not even recyclable; A wide variety of plastic straws and bags, eating utensils, yoghurt containers, and takeout containers are made with materials that can’t be recycled. Plastic pouches used for products like juice pouches are also not recyclable because their plastic and metal layers cannot be separated from one another. So, when received, these plastic products get sent to a landfill or an incinerator, both of which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Many plastics added to the recycling bin are also often contaminated when food or garbage is placed in the wrong bin with them. Contaminations such as these end with large batches of recycled products being disposed of.
HOW PLASTIC PACKAGES FOR FOOD AFFECT OUR HEALTH
We don’t have a long history with plastic packaging, but we’ve already started to see the detrimental effects of ingesting plastic related chemicals on the human body. Plastic contains phthalates, which are esters of phthalic acid. They are mainly used as plasticizers, or substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. They are often used in food packaging because of these qualities.
“Phthalates” is used as a broad classification for many different chemicals, some of which have been studied in recent years. According to Environmental Health News, around 80% of babies, and almost 100% of adults, have measurable levels of phthalates in their bodies. Some studies have shown that prenatal exposure to phthalates can be associated with lower IQ, problems with attention and hyperactivity, and poorer social communication.
Harmful plastic packages have also been linked to infertility in both men and women. People often spend countless hours and dollars trying to conceive a child when one major culprit of infertility has been right in plain sight. One of the harmful phthalates found in plastic is BPA, or bisphenol A, which helps the plastic become more flexible.
Moerschel, Will. “Plastic Health”. 2021.
Gynaecologist Dr Anne Henderson explains that, “The mechanism of entry to the body is not entirely clear, but it is thought that minute amounts of these chemicals can leach into fluids, for example, from bottles containing water and other fluids, and are thus ingested.”
When BPA is exposed to the body through plastic packages for food, some studies have shown that the human reproductive system faces a lowered number of follicles, which are small, fluid-filled sacs in the ovary that contain one immature egg. There are normally thousands of follicles in the ovaries. When an egg matures during a woman’s menstrual cycle, the follicle breaks open and releases the egg from the ovary for possible fertilization. With a lowered number of follicles, fertilization, and therefore fertility, becomes less likely.
WHY WE CHOSE PLASTIC PACKAGES FOR FOOD IN THE FIRST PLACE
Plastic packages for food are still dominating our grocery products because of how hard they are to replace with an equally effective material. Plastic is manufactured transparent, so the buyer can see what’s inside the package and becomes more likely to purchase it. Plastic protects products from the elements and also prevents products from being damaged in transportation, whether the trip is across the country in an airplane or heading home with you in the trunk of your car.
I don’t mean to play devil’s advocate for plastic packaging, but there is a myriad of reasons why society chose the material and ran with it in the 20th century. Now, however, we are far more scientifically advanced and can & should acknowledge that it is time to crack down on replacing plastic packaging with options that are more sustainable.
Plastic packaging may have seemed like the way to go earlier in the twentieth century, but more and more evidence continues to come forth that begs us to abandon it. The chance to preserve our bodily health and our planet’s health is absolutely worth admitting the fact that plastic packaging was a mistake that should never have been made in such a high volume.
As for becoming a society independent from plastic, I know I’m not the only one staring up at this daunting task feeling a little powerless. Plastic packages for food are monsters that can only be defeated when we come together and take it one step at a time. We may not have been the ones who started it, but we can be the ones that finish it.
Next time you visit the grocery store, become hyper-aware of all of the plastic packaging that gets put into your cart, from your snacks all the way to your grocery bags. Each shopping trip, try to cut one plastic-packaged item out of your grocery list and replace it with a non-plastic alternative. You may not feel like you’ve saved the planet, but you’ll know you’re not alone in contributing to a cause that’s worth it.
Tell us which plastic packaged product you cut out this week on our instagram.