The real food poisoning: Plastic in our food system

By Anna Mathieson

You’d have to be hiding under a rock if you hadn’t heard the freaky statistics about plastic pollution in the environment.
Microbeads and microfibres in our waterways, plastic waste leaching toxic chemicals into our soil, more plastic by weight than fish in the sea by 2050: you can ignore those facts, but what you should not ignore is the fact that plastic has entered the food chain.

It’s easy to put your head in the micro-plastic polluted sand pretend that plastic pollution doesn’t affect you. But it does.

To put it simply, you are what you eat: and we are becoming toxic and sick from plastic pollution, just like the natural environment.

Illustration: Ryan Bird

There’s a long list of doomish associations between plastic and its effect on humans.

Most plastic is made from petrochemicals, which are oleophilic. Plastic products absorb and release toxins, like Bisphenol-A (commonly known as BPA, a synthetic estrogen) and phthalates, which are known hormone disruptors and carcinogens. Man boobs and small penises, wildly fluctuating hormones, breast cancer and depression: science has proven that these are side effects from using plastic, particularly in a food related context.*

Our pre-packaged, convenient diets and disposable lifestyles, misinformed or uninformed purchasing behaviour, the ineffective use of resources, and shoddy waste management systems mean that plastic, and all the toxic chemicals associated with it, have officially ended up on our plates.

How? Chemicals leach from plastic containers like bottles, cans (which are lined with plastic film to stop them from rusting), takeaway containers, polystyrene meat trays, food packaging (especially packaging for food that is designed to be heated or boiled in its packet) and food that is heated or served in plastic or polystyrene.

Then there is the issue of plastic in our oceans. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation estimates that around 50% of single-use plastic waste is unaccounted for – much of that waste ends up in our oceans. Research from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation indicates that between 5 and 13 million tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year, to be ingested by seabirds, fish and other (delicious) sea dwelling creatures.

Plastic waste in the ocean enters the food chain when it is consumed by the fish and sea animals (kaimoana) we eat. Most of this plastic is found in the guts of fish, but as researchers delve further into the effect of micro-plastics, it’s becoming clear that particles of plastic at nano-scale transfer from the guts to the meat – and therefore to us.

So what can we do about this sorry state of affairs?

‘What about recycling’, I hear you think. Yeah, nah. That dirty hummus container isn’t being recycled, it’s going straight to hell.

It’s hard to obtain quantitative data about recycling statistics in New Zealand, but if our habits stack up with global trends, we are blowing it. For example: only half of the 480 billion plastic drinking bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling, and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. The harsh reality is that most single-use consumer packaging made of plastic ends up in landfill or the ocean.

The first ever peer-reviewed global study of plastic production shows that of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced since the 1950’s, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that 6.3 billion metric tons, only nine percent has been recycled, twelve percent has been incinerated (also no good) and 79 percent has ended up as rubbish: poisoning our soils and poisoning the ocean.

Enough with the doom and gloom, here’s what you can do to reduce your intake of plastic (literally and figuratively):

Give a fuck. I’m won’t lie: it takes time, effort and sometimes expense to remove plastic from your diet. At best, it’s inconvenient, at worst, it’s a pain in the ass. We’re all in this together, and tackling the tricky issue of plastic waste will require change and effort from all of us.

Sharpen up and think ahead. When you leave the house, make sure you have your water bottle, coffee cup, cloth bag. Keep a stash of reusable bags and a few cups in your car for those unexpected purchases/coffee dates.

Think about what you are purchasing and how it’s packaged. Buying in bulk, choosing glass packaging over plastic or cans is better for your health, your budget and the environment. Your dollar is effectively your vote for the sort of environment we end up living in – spend it wisely.

Let your fruits & veggies be pals. Do you really need to separate your fruits and veggies into separate plastic bags? It might take a little longer at the check out but it’s a good opportunity to start a conversation about single-use plastic with the check out assistant or the customers in the queue. Even better, take your reusable bags and trot down to your local farmers market to support local growers.

Read the label. If your face scrub or toothpaste has the following ingredients: Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and Nylon (PA), you’re either scrubbing your face or brushing your teeth with plastic microbeads. Switch to a brand which doesn’t use microplastics.

Think about what you wear. Every time you wash your synthetic fibre clothes, you’re washing microparticles of plastic into the drain, which ultimately end up in the ocean. Choose clothes that are made of natural fibres like wool, silk, cotton, linen and bamboo.

Grow your own. It’s easy to grow soft herbs like rocket, coriander, parsley and basil at home. Anything you can grow at home will reduce the amount of plastic packaging you’re sending to landfill.

De-plastify your kitchen. Avoid cooking with plastic utensils and Teflon coated pans. Plastic + heat = bad news, especially when it’s scratched. A well-cared-for cast iron pan won’t stick. Choose glass, porcelain, enamel, cast iron, or stainless steel for your cookware. Wood and metal utensils won’t leach chemicals into your food.

Educate yourself. Knowledge is power, so get schooled about plastic and most importantly, take action. There are plenty of grass roots organisations in Auckland and around New Zealand who are rolling their sleeves up and getting involved. ‘Our Seas Our Futures’ runs a number of campaigns designed at banning microbeads and plastic bags, find out more at www.osof.org

Go reusable. Takeaway coffee cups are the scourge of the earth: paper which is lined with polyethylene. A person who drinks 5 takeaway coffees a week is producing around 14 kg of waste, according to the Sustainable Business Network. If you don’t have time to sit down and drink your coffee from a cup in the cafe, get yourself a reusable glass or ceramic cup and use it. Take your lunch in a reusable glass or metal container, instead of using plastic.

Beware the panacea of plant-based plastic (polylactic acid or PLA) and ‘compostable’ packaging. PLA is a polymer made from high levels of polylactic acid molecules. For PLA to biodegrade, the polymer must be broken down by adding water to it (a process known as hydrolysing). Heat and moisture are required for hydrolysing to occur. When that PLA cup or fork is thrown in the bin, where it will not be exposed to the heat and moisture required to trigger biodegradation, it will remain there for decades or centuries, much like an ordinary plastic cup or fork.

PLA packaging is still disposable packaging, and unless it ends up in a commercial composter (a hot composting system with sustained heat over 65 degrees for certain period of time), it won’t break down. PLA and plant-based ‘compostable’ packaging often ends up contaminating PET recycling streams and usually ends up in landfill where it breaks down and produces methane.

Unless you’re eating somewhere with access to a commercial composting collection service, like We Compost) you’re better off eating from a washable, reusable plate.

Get off the bottle. Auckland water tastes like shite, but there is another way.

Say no to bottled water – carry your own glass or stainless steel water bottle. Reusable plastic bottles are still made of plastic, which leaches chemicals into your drink.

Invest in a water filter, buy charcoal sticks for your water jug, keep a jug of filtered water in the fridge with sliced fruit or lemon to make it taste better, and refill your reusable bottle with this. The initial investment in a quality water filter pays off in time, and leaves you with water that doesn’t taste like a chlorine pool.

Plan ahead: Carry your own wood, metal or bamboo cutlery in your handbag or car so you don’t need to use single use plastic or disposable cutlery when you’re out and about.

Do it yourself. Auckland-based charity Sustainable Coastlines reckons that single-use plastics make up 77% of the 1.3 million litres of rubbish they’ve picked up from New Zealand coastlines since 2009. Most single use plastic comes from food packaging.

Do yourself and the planet a favour and take some time to DIY. Invest in a blender and you’ll be amazed at the dips, sauces, nut milks, condiments and soups you can produce at home, from scratch, with minimal packaging and maximum satisfaction.

Making your own cosmetics and cleaning products is another easy and cost effective way to reduce single-use plastic in your life. There’s plenty of online tutorials which will help you make your own toothpaste, cleaners and more.

Avoid tea bags and coffee capsules. Most commercially available tea bags contain food grade nylon or polyethylene terepthalate (PET) which is used to stop the bags from disintegrating in hot water. Get yourself a good old fashioned teapot and use loose leaf tea. While we’re on the topic of hot drinks, you’re best to avoid the inherently doomish coffee capsules (e.g Nespresso) which are made from aluminium, a neurotoxin. A pot of loose leaf tea or a good old fashioned French press or stovetop coffee are better for you, and the environment.

Straws suck. Refuse single use plastic straws. Americans alone use an estimated 500 million straws every single day- if placed end to end, that’s enough to circle the globe more than 2.5 times per day. If you must suck it up, get a reusable metal, glass or bamboo straw.

Get involved. Organisations like Sustainable Coastlines work on the front line to fight plastic pollution through their education and awareness campaigns, and practical beach clean up activities. Donate, or get involved with practical action by volunteering by contacting sustainablecoastlines.org. Check out youth-led organisation www.plasticdiet.org for more ways to lobby against plastic. Come July, you can try your hand at living a plastic free lifestyle by getting involved with Plastic Free July – www.plasticfreejuly.org

*https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3791860/