Pervasive Plastics in Our Food Supply by Christina Badaracco, MPH, RD
Updated: Nov 14, 2019
Can you remember the world before plastics were pervasive in our food supply? Whether for transport, storage, protection or cover, we now rely on various forms of plastic at all points along our food supply chain. Not only is this problematic for the waste they produce and pollution they release into the environment, but plastics are harmful to human health when toxic chemicals and microplastics are released into our food and water. As a dietitian who aims to prevent disease through a healthy diet and lifestyle, I know reducing exposure to plastics in the way we buy, prepare and store food is important to protect human health. I hope to continue to reduce my own plastic footprint and educate my colleagues and the general population to do the same.
How does plastic enter our food supply? There are a variety of ways plastics enter our food supply. First, improper handling and degradation of the myriad plastic-encased food and drink items we buy at grocery stores can release chemicals into our food. When plastics are thrown away, they slowly degrade under the stress of wind, sun, water and more, eventually forming microplastics. These tiny pieces of plastic, which are smaller than five millimeters (like fibers, fragments and microbeads), enter the environment and are eaten by animals. A 2016 report from the International Maritime Organization found that more than 60 aquatic species that we harvest for food have ingested plastics, later passing it up the food chain to humans.
The health effect of this exposure is difficult to measure because we are exposed to so much plastic every day that we can’t easily parse out this negative effect of microplastics. We do know that ingestion of plastics causes wild animals to suffer greatly, such as by blocking vital organs or filling their stomachs so food can’t pass, leading to starvation.
Another route of exposure in humans comes via food preparation, particularly the methods used outside of the home. A 2018 study by Varshavsky et al. found an association between eating away from home and levels of hormone-disrupting chemicals (which can come from plastics). These chemicals can contribute to health problems such as obesity, infertility and impaired development. A 2016 study by Zota et al. found a positive, dose-response relationship between fast food intake and levels of phthalates (one of the hormone-disrupting chemicals). The levels were associated particularly with grain food items, which the authors suggested could have been due to these foods’ greater contact with packaging.
Eating more processed foods leads to increased exposure to these harmful chemicals because of the gloves, tubing and packaging used in every step of processing. Plastic wrap covering food in ovens, bits of plastic gloves ending up in pots, or an employee forgetting to remove a small wrapper all contribute to the elevated exposure. Finally, a recent study commissioned by Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and Toxic-Free Future found carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals called PFAS in store-brand products throughout Albertsons and Safeway, highlighting the contamination of the food along its production process and the danger consuming these foods poses to human health. Americans are increasingly eating processed foods and taking their meals away from home, which makes this exposure a real cause for concern.
Why is storing food in plastic a problem? Plastic storage containers can be a convenient option for storing leftovers and transporting food to school, work or a potluck. However, as compared to glass or ceramic storage, their use is limited. They should never be heated—either in microwaves or dishwashers—because the heat causes them to leach chemicals into their contents. Because plastic containers can’t be transferred directly from refrigerator to microwave, food should be transferred to a pan or glass or ceramic dish to reheat, which creates the need to wash extra dishes. They also degrade over time, particularly as they get nicked by utensils, and should be discarded (recycled, if possible) as they become cloudy or visibly scratched. This degradation also causes more release of chemicals, like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), into the container's food or liquid contents.
Why is plastic waste a problem? Plastics are problematic due to the resources they consume during their production and the pollution they cause. Conventional plastics are made of nonrenewable resources—i.e., oil, natural gas or coal. While companies are increasingly seeking alternative feedstocks for plastic production (such as sugarcane, pulp or fungi), the production processes still require inputs of energy and water.
It’s estimated that only nine percent of plastics are recycled worldwide, meaning the rest end up in landfills and/or eventually in the ocean, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere, soil and water while they decompose and harm wildlife. The U.S. used to sell most of its collected recyclables to China to repurpose, but in 2018 China stopped taking these recyclables due to high levels of contamination. Other countries are now taking small amounts and some companies are emerging in the U.S. to handle this waste stream, but the upstream problem of production, stimulated by Americans’ enormous level of consumption, must be slowed.
Stories of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (which refers to the collection of plastic debris in the northern Pacific Ocean) and images of animals killed by plastics have shocked audiences around the world, but they have yet to stimulate any real change in consumer behavior. Thankfully, many municipalities are taking important steps to tax or ban disposables such as Styrofoam clamshells, plastic water bottles and plastic straws. Conscious and widespread behavior change is needed to reduce upstream demand to produce the plastics in the first place.
What should I do if certain plastics are unavoidable? If plastic must be used, there are certain varieties that are deemed safer than others. The number found in the recycling symbol (titled the resin identification code) indicates the plastic’s composition.
The safest options are plastics numbered 1, 2, 4 and 5.
The varieties believed to be most harmful to human health are:
Number 3, which contains PVC and may be found in blister packs and clamshells
Number 6, which contains polystyrene and is typically found in single-use tableware or meat trays
Number 7, which contains a wide mix of plastics and may have BPA (which has thus far only been banned in baby products)
For safer storage options, consider Bee’s Wrap for coverings, Ecozoi or U-Konserve stainless steel containers, Pyrex for glass containers and Mason jars for myriad uses.
What can I do to reduce my exposure to plastics?
Say no thank you to straws at restaurants and coffee shops. Consider carrying your own stainless steel reusable straw.
Keep a reusable bottle at work and in the car (and wash it regularly) so it is ready to use when you need it.
Keep reusable utensils (such as bamboo or stainless steel) at home and in the car.
Bring a stainless steel mug when you buy coffee. If you occasionally need to use a paper or plastic cup, try to avoid also adding a plastic lid.
Store leftovers in Mason jars or other glass containers. These can go in the freezer, microwave or dishwasher for great versatility.
Buy meat at the deli counter that is wrapped in paper and especially avoid any packaged in Styrofoam.
Never reheat food in plastic or while covered in plastic wrap. Use glass or ceramic instead and cover with wax paper, a paper towel or a glass plate to avoid splatters.
Bring reusable containers when shopping for food in bulk. Remember to have them weighed at the customer service desk beforehand so your cashier knows the tare weight.
Keep reusable produce and grocery bags in your car or by your front door to make it easy to bring when you buy groceries, reducing your need for both types of plastic bags.
Choose a metal or silicone cutting board. If it is necessary to use plastic, discard if it becomes noticeably nicked or scratched.
American Chemistry Council. “Plastic Packaging Resins.” Accessed July 25, 2019. plastics.americanchemistry.com/Plastic-Resin-Codes-PDF/
Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection. Sources, Fate and Effects of Microplastics in the Marine Environment (Part 2). 2016. www.gesamp.org/publications/microplastics-in-the-marine-environment-part-2
Joyce C. Where Will Your Plastic Trash Go Now That China Doesn't Want It? NPR. Published March 13, 2019. Accessed July 23, 2019. www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/13/702501726/where-will-your-plastic-trash-go-now-that-china-doesnt-want-it
NPR. What's recyclable, what becomes trash, and why. n.pr/2m5yd64
Parker L. A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled. National Geographic. Published December 20, 2018. Accessed July 23, 2019. news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/
Schreder E and Schade M. Toxic food packaging at the grocery store? New laboratory testing reveals PFAS likely in Albertsons’ popcorn packaging, dental floss, & other products. Published May 13, 2019. Accessed July 22, 2019. Toxic-Free Future. toxicfreefuture.org/toxic-food-packaging-at-the-grocery-store-new-laboratory-testing-reveals-pfas-likely-in-albertsons-products/
US EPA. Plastics: Material-Specific Data. Updated May 7, 2019. Accessed July 25, 2019. www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data
Varshavsky JR, Morello-Frosch R, Woodruff TJ, Zota AR. Dietary sources of cumulative phthalates exposure among the U.S. general population in NHANES 2005-2014. Environ Int. 2018;115:417–429.
Mitro SD. Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposures among the U.S. Population in NHANES, 2003-2010. Environ Health Perspect. 2016;124(10):1521–1528.
Christina Badaracco, MPH, RD
Christina is a registered dietitian and author who aims to improve access to healthy and sustainable food and educate Americans about the connections between food and health. She loves to experiment with healthy recipes in the kitchen and share her creations to inspire others to cook.
Christina completed her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital and earned her Master of Public Health degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Previously, she graduated with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Princeton University, after conducting her thesis on sustainable agriculture and energy in Kenya. She has done clinical nutrition research at the National Institutes of Health, menu planning and nutrition education at the Oakland Unified School District and communications at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water. She has also enjoyed contributing to children’s gardens, farmers’ markets and a number of organic farms.
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