Curious Cook: We need to do more about plastic waste before it poisons our food

Plastic bottles and other waste cluttering the jetty near the fish market in Kudat, making it difficult for fishermen to dock their boats. - ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE/ THE STAR

The lockdowns around the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic are aggravating a problem which many people think has been solved, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Ironically, most people are doing something positive about this problem, but every year, the situation gets worse and people apparently get more complacent.

It is time to examine why we are so complacent, what we are doing wrong and understand the reasons why before our environment is degraded to an extent where we can all end up potentially poisoned by our food.

This article is about plastics, and how we have been fooled by producers of plastics to consume more plastic products each year despite sobering data which indicates plastics are one of the worst and most persistent pollutants on the planet.

False reassurance

Most people are complacent about plastics because most of us have all done our bit to recycle plastics. However, the high probability is that you would never encounter any “recycled plastics” apart from rubbish bags, pet feeding bowls, dustbins, shopping bags and a few assorted garments. That was all I could find here in France.

Yet the world is producing over 381 million tonnes of plastics every year since 2015 and at best, perhaps 15% of this annual amount is potentially and economically recyclable with current technologies. That leaves around 324 million tonnes each year either in temporary use or polluting our planet, especially as 55% of all plastics produced (210 million tonnes annually) are single use, not fit for recycling and hence the only option after use is to discard them.This complacency is aggravated by the pandemic.

Most people are not aware of how much recycling depends on human labour to sift and sort the various types of plastics into potentially recyclable piles. Recycling also relies on humans to separate out all the non-recyclable plastics into huge piles of “mixed plastics” which are then burned (contributing to air pollution) or buried in landfill sites (contributing to land pollution) or just discarded into rivers (contributing to water/marine pollution).

The pandemic means many labourers are unable to work as normal and hence many countries are not meeting their already meagre recycling targets.

Also, many people think that recycled plastics are “handled” by specialist processing plants that magically does the “recycling” via fancy, intelligent, clean machines. Nothing is further from the truth. Much of the plastic waste from the West is simply bundled into huge containers and shipped to poor countries where the cost of labour is low enough to make sifting through millions of tonnes of plastic trash economically viable.

Mixed plastics (the unrecyclable plastics) are often then burned in locations thousands of miles away from the original users’ homes. This happened for years in Malaysia and a 2019 report found high levels of toxic and carcinogenic residues in water and land samples near where mixed plastics were stored and “processed” (via burning).

Furthermore, the need for enhanced food safety and personal protection equipment (PPE) means even more plastics are now used in food safety packaging and producing PPE such as face masks and gloves (and associated packaging). The pandemic economic downturn also meant oil companies changing their focus from fuels to producing even more plastics.

The reality is it is much cheaper and more sanitary to produce new plastics from petroleum than re-using old plastics.

By the way, the “recyclable” symbols on many products are often there to provide a false assurance that using plastics are not having an impact on our environment.

In many countries, a plastic container with a recyclable symbol does not always mean it is easily or economically recyclable. It may mean it is recyclable only under certain, special conditions which are unlikely to be available.

What we are doing wrong

One thing many people are doing wrong is believing plastics are benign products which have no consequences for our environment. Even if a plastic product is recyclable, it is not always possible to recycle it if the container is contaminated with food residue or sticky labels made from other plastics.

The criteria for recycling plastics are very much higher than people would expect, and the fact this is not communicated publicly is another indication that recycling plastics is a very low priority with the producers of plastics (who just want to sell more).

Even if one switches to using “biodegradable” plastics, this does not necessarily improve things. Many such “biodegradables” degenerate only when processed in industrial composting facilities (which are usually not commonly available) – therefore disposing of a biodegradable product is often the same as throwing out a non-recyclable plastic item.

We tend to like colourful packaging but dyes/colourants in such containers usually mean that they are not recyclable as the dyes will contaminate other plastics when recycled together. In truth, the optimal recyclable plastics are the clear or white containers for holding drinks.

Assuming one chooses to use recycled products whenever possible, this still does not solve the problem.

The reason is plastics degrade after recycling and to bring the quality back to, for example, food quality standards, only a small amount of recycled plastic is used. The rest of the plastics will comprise of virgin, new plastics.

Recycling plastics often transforms the usage of the plastic; eg, water bottles can be turned into synthetic fabric products such as carpets or shoes. But these converted products cannot be recycled again due to colourants or additional materials bound to the original recycled plastic components.

In short, the best way to use plastic products is to recognise their inherent limitations and potential problems. A suggestion would be to reuse plastics as much as possible. Do not throw away a plastic bag/container without thinking of some way of using it again. With the food containers from pandemic meal deliveries, perhaps wash them and use them as storage containers.

If one recognises plastics can only be used a very few number of times, then reusing or repurposing plastics at home is effectively the same as, and usually better than, industrial recycling.

The criteria for recycling plastics are very much higher than people would expect.The criteria for recycling plastics are very much higher than people would expect.

Why we should be wary

The rate of plastic production is increasing every year, not decreasing. Statistics show that over half of all the plastics on earth now have been manufactured since 2002 (despite its introduction over 70 years earlier), and the scale of plastic pollution is estimated to double between 2020 and 2030, less than 10 years from now.

It is barely possible to imagine the enormity of this pollution; 8.8 million tonnes of raw plastic enter streams, rivers and oceans each year and as a result, there are currently over 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans.

Every sea turtle now has plastics in their stomachs. One in every three fish caught for human food contains plastics, and 88% of the surface of the oceans are now polluted by plastic waste. There is no continent on earth untouched by plastic pollution; plastic particles are now found in the air and rainwater and on virtually every patch of land, including mountain tops, ocean depths, tropical forests, deserts, glaciers, etc. And the lifespan of plastics ranges from hundreds to over 5,000 years.

On average, every human ingests around 2,000 particles of plastic a week. Although there are often claims that plastics are chemically inert, it is also clear they often contain other chemicals which are known serious carcinogens.

These chemicals are used to treat plastics during production to impart characteristics such as structural strength, heat tolerance, flexibility, impact resistance, etc.

An example of such chemical is Bisphenol-A (BPA), which was very commonly used in processes for manufacturing the strong polycarbonate plastics used to store foods. Such polycarbonates are found in almost every home as storage boxes in refrigerators, lunch boxes, drink bottles, etc.

BPA was in pervasive use for several decades before it was found to be a xenoestrogen, a compound which can mimic the properties of hormones and therefore interfere with the functions of normal human hormones. Since 2012, BPA in many countries has been banned and mostly replaced by BPS and BPF, although it remains unclear if these newer compounds are any safer.

Most of the plastics in the environment have been treated with various noxious chemicals or have harmful properties.

Microbeads (plastics used in cosmetics) were discovered to be a million times more toxic than originally estimated as we now know they attract and concentrate poisons such as DDT and PCBs in the oceans which are then ingested by microscopic plankton.

The toxins in microbeads then move up the food chain as plankton are eaten by other marine life which then get consumed by higher order marine life (such as the fish we eat).

Where to start

Plastics are poisoning our environment and our food. It is a matter of time before they begin to seriously affect our wellbeing. The pandemic is not helping as it promotes the production of more plastics, and it is time to stop believing recycling helps to fully solve the problem.

A starting point is to reduce and reuse plastics.

As examples, we can ask restaurants to avoid giving plastic cutlery with their food deliveries, and not to use plastic containers and bags if alternatives are available. We can also recycle plastics at home more efficiently than recycling factories by ensuring we buy less and use plastic items at least a few times before we discard them for recycling.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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plastics , waste , climate change


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