Consider Plastic Packaging
This morning when you woke up and had breakfast, you possibly pulled out a box of cereal and opened the plastic up to pour out your serving. Maybe it was a granola bar, or maybe it was simply a glass of milk. When thinking about what food you ate earlier today, one thing that was probably constant; there was some form of plastic packaging attributed to it. Whether it was the vessel the food is kept in or the individual wrapper the serving came in, it was most likely plastic. Plastic is EVERYWHERE in our culture, but do the costs outweigh the benefits? I believe we need to stray away from our dependency our plastic packaging for our food products. The earth is already muddled with the waste of our food system and the plastics that ultimately become pollution do not just magically disappear, it takes hundreds and hundreds of years to biodegrade. With the global population projected to reach over 9 billion by 2050, what does this mean for the future of how we disseminate food and dispose of its waste? What alternatives are out there? Where does our plastic waste go? Is “reduce, reuse, recycle” enough to change our impact? The answers to these questions should give a broader knowledge of how we can change the detrimental impact we’re causing to the earth.
The most widely used types of plastic among food packaging and transport is high-density polyethylene (HDP) and low-density polyethylene (LDP). Water bottles, peanut butter jars, and ketchup bottles are all examples of food related items that use HDP, the harder of the two plastics mentioned. Items like grocery bags, chips, and packaged salad use LDP plastic to make for a more flexible container. Due to their chemical natures the two different types of plastic take varied lengths to decompose.
The three R’s of reduce, reuse, and recycle we all learned in grade school are very important, but one shines stronger than the others. Reduce. Reducing is something anybody and everyone can do. Reducing can be defined in a multitude of ways. It just depends on which way you figuratively flip the telescope. It could mean reducing the amount of plastic waste you throw away. It could mean reducing the amount of plastic water bottles you drink. Or it could mean as a nation, or globally, we cut back on the amount of plastic use in the mass food industry. We can reuse plastics to a certain extent, but it’s only a mere fraction that actually makes it to the proper recycling plants versus landfills. So where does that 2-liter of Pepsi go when it doesn’t make into that green bin or even the landfill for that matter?
The answer is usually our waterways. Say you throw the plastic wrapper of a pack of crackers out the window of your car while going over a bridge. The wrapper lands on the road. Oncoming traffic sweeps it up into the air and the wind carries it over the bridge into a river underneath. It can split into two scenarios from here. The plastic wrapper stays in the river and gets lodged in rocks where it begins to degrade and release chemicals; imagine that playing out thousands upon thousands of times daily across our nations freshwater ways. That water is subsequently used for our drinking source. In scenario two, that river leads to a bay, where that bay leads to the ocean. Once in the ocean though, it doesn’t just settle to the bottom and that’s the end of the ride, no. Tides pull plastics and send them half across the globe, biodegrading as they go. The tides eventually lead them to gyres. Gyres are large circulating currents in the oceans caused by the Coriolis effect. One particular area of unfortunate consequence is the “Pacific trash vortex” that lies in the North Pacific Gyre. This garbage patch is characterized by an overwhelming amount of plastics. We may not drink ocean water, but marine life depends on it. When you imagine a garbage patch in the middle of the ocean, one may conjure images of whole soda bottles, or the plastic rings from a six-pack of beer, but by the time our plastic waste reaches these gyres, they’ve been pulverized and broken down into trillions of tiny to micro-sized bits of plastic that cause greater problems than when the plastic waste was as a whole. I can only imagine heavily plastic polluted waters, on such a microscopic level, could affect fish and marine life in the same way a carbon monoxide filled room would affect us.
Consider the Laysan Albatross, pictured here to the right. Native to Hawaii it is estimated out of 1.5 million population of these birds, nearly 90% of the chick populace “contain plastic in the proventriculus and gizzard portions of their stomachs” due to the parent fowl regurgitating plastic riddled sustenance to their young. When we, unknowingly or not, pollute the earth with these plastics, we are ultimately hurting the earth, other organisms and ourselves all simultaneously. Remember that first R. our impact in some form is the easiest first step.
If we want to reduce our impact, what are the alternatives to HDP & LDP plastics? One of the strongest contenders as a plastic alternative are bioplastics. Bioplastics used natural resources like corn, vegetables oils, or plant cellulose in order to create a more sustainable form of plastic. The advantages seem tenfold compared to the disadvantages. For starters, bioplastics don’t take nearly as long to breakdown compared to regular plastics. Also, regular plastics depend on oil and fossil fuels in their production. With bioplastics, the need for these limited resources isn’t necessary since biomass materials are used in lieu of petroleum. The fact that we’d be switching from using our dwindling global fossil fuel sources to a renewable source of energy to produce a plastic alternative makes it seem like a no-brainer. Also, materials like burlap, canvas, hemp, and paper could all be used in place of plastic in many areas of the food industry. Bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store, people!
Plastic is something of heavy reliance in our culture. It is single handedly the most widely used food packaging material used across the board for meats, vegetables & fruits, dairy, etc. Plastic is a necessary beast because of its strength, flexibility, ability to preserve, and so on, but at what cost will our plastic usage bring as the population continues to move at an exponential rate? Consider the voyage your food wrapper makes when it doesn’t make it to a recycling bin or trashcan. Consider the impact plastics not only have on the environment, but also on ourselves, our resources, and the other organisms we share this earth with. And hopefully you’ll consider the alternatives to plastics next time you make a grocery run!
- Food Packaging — Roles, Materials, and Environmental Issues. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2017, from http://www.ift.org/knowledge-center/read-ift-publications/science-reports/scientific-status-summaries/food-packaging.aspx
- Discarded Plastics Distress Albatross Chicks. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2017, from https://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2012/10/24/Discarded-plastics-distress-albatross-chicks
- Harris, W. (2010, December 15). How long does it take for plastics to biodegrade? Retrieved May 01, 2017, from http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/how-long-does-it-take-for-plastics-to-biodegrade.htm
- Great Pacific garbage patch. (2017, March 24). Retrieved May 01, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch#Effect_on_wildlife_and_humans
- 7 Advantages of Biodegradable Plastics – updated article with new information. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2017, from http://www.biostockspro.com/7-advantages-of-biodegradable-plastics/