Plastic Packaging

20. October 2020

Danger to people and environment

Plastic packaging – a danger to people and the environment

Most of the food we buy is packaged, but as environmental awareness grows, consumers are increasingly turning away from plastic packaging. Mountains of plastic are harming wildlife and the environment, and more and more people are distressed by it.

Although there is growing awareness of the effects of plastic on the environment and our health, we are experiencing a boom in plastic production and this trend will continue in the future. They talk of a plastic industry that is out of control. The health consequences for humans remain hidden.

Plastic mountains all over the world

In 2018, around 359 million tonnes of plastic were produced worldwide – around 19 million tonnes in Germany. Much of it ends up as packaging for food in supermarkets.

The high level of plastic production inherently generates a lot of plastic waste. In Europe alone, there were over 29 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2018, reports the statistics portal “Statista”.

The tragic thing is that almost 80 percent of all marine waste consists of plastic that has ended up in the oceans via rivers. Here is an example: a plastic bag can take up to 20 years to completely decompose in the sea.

A PET bottle takes almost 450 years to decompose in water and sink to the seabed in the form of microplastics. In 1978 Coca-Cola decided to replace the legendary glass bottle with plastic bottles, which could be described as the beginning of the end.

More than 500 billion plastic bottles are sold worldwide every year. In 2016, over 1 million plastic bottles were sold every minute. Only 7 percent of them were reused through recycling. These giant mountains of plastic end up in landfills or in the ocean.

In Germany, 16.4 billion disposable plastic bottles are used annually, which corresponds to a good 500,000 tonnes of waste. According to the Plastic Atlas 2019, every German citizen produces around 38 kilogrammes of plastic waste per year. In a European comparison, this puts Germany in the top group.

Throw-away mentality – waste for the world

Back in the 1950s, people still used plastic with as much care as glass or silk. Then consumer goods companies discovered the material’s advantages and humans developed a lifestyle that incessantly produces waste, writes the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Unfortunately, public perception of plastic is almost exclusively limited to plastic bags and plastic bottles. In contrast, food packaging made of plastic is hardly mentioned. The food industry is one of the largest buyers of plastics. They want their products to be nicely packaged and meet the needs of consumers.

Plastic in the food chain

The price: plastic also ends up in the fields and makes its way into food and thus into the food chain. In addition, according to the German Consumer Advice Centre (Verbraucherzentrale), pollutants from packaging can migrate into food. The only exception is glass.

Most groceries in the supermarket are packaged, which in itself doesn’t have to be bad. Packaging provides protection against external influences and extends the shelf life of goods. It also makes it easier for manufacturers to transport and store food products.

Pollutants in food

Unfortunately, pollutants can get into food, and the packaging is often unnecessary. Do fruit and vegetables really need to be packaged in plastic wrap?

Pre-prepared salads in small plastic bowls, cucumbers in plastic wrap, pasta in plastic bags, minced meat, sausage products, cheese, etc.: everything is packed in plastic. But does it really need to be? Can’t these products also be sold from the fresh food counter with less plastic packaging? Not to mention the millions of plastic yogurt pots. Plastic should not come into contact with agricultural products that end up on our plates.

If ingredients from the packaging pass into a foodstuff, this is known as migration. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung, BfR) specifies the permitted maximum quantities and limit values for migration into food. It would be better, however, if migration from packaging to food was not permitted at all. Therefore, it is better to shop with a critical eye.

Convenience is the magic word

These days, it is impossible to imagine the European food industry without plastic. Even worse: the use of plastic in the food sector is increasing in all countries. This is one consequence of marketing: away from farmers’ markets, towards supermarkets.

The food industry has changed fundamentally across Europe. The magic word today is convenience.  You can read about this on Wikipedia: convenience food is food that is commercially prepared to optimise ease of consumption.

The 2019 Nutrition Report shows that 48 percent of respondents believe that being able to prepare meals quickly and easily is important. And the food industry is responding by offering an increasing number of ready meals – often wrapped in plastic.

And the trend is increasing: for example, 75 percent of German households are composed of one or two people. As a result portions are getting smaller and smaller, plus supermarkets are offering solo portions, with the result that more and more plastic is being put into circulation. Few people think about the effect on their health. In 2018, more than 1.13 trillion items of packaging were used for food and beverages. The most important and commonly used packaging material was: plastic.

This leads to another problem: adhesives

The German Consumer Advice Centre (Verbraucherzentrale) points out: “Most packaging and other materials that come into contact with food are made using adhesives. The formulas are often very complex and contain numerous individual components. Each formula consists of up to 15 components, whereby several hundred substances can be used in the manufacture of adhesives”.

And further: “Adhesives play a particularly important role in resealable packaging – for example, for meat and sausage products and sliced cheese. Resealable packaging allows more substances to migrate into the food than non-resealable packaging of a comparable type”.

Another danger is bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical which disrupts our hormonal systems. BPA has a similar effect to the female hormone oestrogen and influences the endocrine system. Even small amounts of BPA can have an oestrogen-like effect and are significantly hazardous to health.

There is hope

But apparently there is hope: there is a growing awareness that unpackaged food is better for the environment and for our health. Consumer pressure is growing on the food and consumer goods industries to become more environmentally conscious.

Shops offering unpackaged food are opening up in an increasing number of European cities. According to a representative survey from 2017, 60 percent of Germans, as well as almost every other European country, support this trend. In the future, consumers will measure brands by their commitment to people and nature.

The question posed at the beginning of this article about whether it is better to buy unpackaged food has definitely been answered. In supermarkets, you should always buy meat and cheese from the fresh food counter. You can get unpackaged fruit and vegetables at weekly markets, in farm and organic shops or in local corner shops.

If there is no better alternative, you can almost always buy supermarket groceries in cardboard packaging or – even better – in jars. Cans, on the other hand, should definitely be avoided. The inner surface of the can is completely or partially coated with a thin film of epoxy plastic, which often contains bisphenol-A (BPA), a substance that can migrate into the food.

If possible, avoid plastic packaging when shopping and consistently avoid plastic in your everyday life! Click here for some valuable tips from the German Consumer Advice Centre on avoiding plastic in your everyday life.

Sources:
ERNÄHRUNG – EIN UNAPPETITLICHER KREISLAUF (NUTRITION – AN UNAPPETISING CYCLE) by Christine Chemnitz and Christian Rehmer, p. 20

Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment: Mikroplastik (Microplastics), representative population survey, Germany, January 22, 2019, p. 3