Why Ethical Food shouldn’t be Packaged in Plastic
Plastic; the buzz word of the decade. It’s everywhere and in everything, it seems almost impossible to separate ourselves from it in modern life. But why is it so important? We’ve all seen the videos of dead whales with stomachs full of plastic, sea turtles with straws up their noses, sea birds trapped in netting, fish swimming through tonnes of plastic debris… But it’s not just the oceans that are affected, plastic litter is choking both earth and sea, and apart from the physical problem it represents, most plastics also leach toxins out into the environment which can cause endocrine disruptions as they mimic the actions of some hormones (1). Our soils are potentially polluted with up to twenty-three times the amount of plastic litter as our oceans (2); sift through a handful of soil and how many pieces of plastic do you find? That’s not including all the microplastics too small to see with the naked eye, the tiny pieces that have broken off as the plastics slowly start to deteriorate. So how long does it take for plastics to degrade? Essentially it depends on the type of plastics, these fall into a variety of groups depending on the density and composition of the plastic, but for our purposes, there are three main groups (3). 1. Petroleum-based plastics; these take anywhere from a few hundred years to thousands of years to fully breakdown, the process is dependent upon exposure to UV light as bacteria don’t process plastic the way they do organic matter (4). 2. Petroleum-based biodegradable plastics; these are very similar to standard petroleum-based plastics, but they contain additives which are supposed to help them break down in either aerobic (oxygen present) or anaerobic (no oxygen present) environments, though research shows the additives make very little difference to the speed of decomposition (4). 3. Plant-based hydro-biodegradable plastics, these are made from 100% organic materials, no petroleum required; these can be further divided into home compostable and industrial compostable (5).
Plastics were first invented in 1896, with the first totally artificial polymer being developed in 1907 (6), but they didn’t become popular until much later. It’s only in the last few decades that the lack of recyclability and biodegradability of plastics has become a noticeable issue; this is in part due to the ever-increasing human population and related consumerism. Poor waste management has led to oceans literally choking with plastic and areas such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where currents have caused the congregation of mass amounts of plastic debris (7); these gyres are now being used as case studies for how slowly plastic degrades, as well as monitoring current movements. It is believed that every single piece of plastic ever manufactured still exists in one form or another, it’s also difficult to recycle as it loses structural integrity and can only be recycled a couple of times before it’s unusable, unlike glass and aluminum which can effectively be recycled infinitely (8). The obvious benefits to plastics are their lightweight and flexible nature, reducing the weight of produce being shipped also reduces the fuel consumption for its travel, and the cheapness of manufacture. This is changing however, as crude oil reserves are depleting, and we have no way to replenish them as they are a finite commodity (9). So what’s the answer? Biodegradable plastics are a good option in some ways, though the amount of energy used in their production may still outweigh the benefits they present, as an alternative to petroleum plastics they still represent a step forward, however. The reduce, reuse, recycle mantra is in that order for a reason, the first step forward is to reduce the sheer amount of single-use and plastic products we consume, it’s become far too easy to simply throw away products that have become damaged rather than repair them. Reuse is the next stage, either reusing products for their intended purpose or by upcycling them into another useful form. Then recycle, when products are finally no longer useful or repairable, they can be recycled into new products. There’s some controversy over the subject of food packaging and food hygiene standards, especially in relation to the new trend of bringing your own container, with the suggestion being that cross-contamination could be a potentially serious issue (10).
As ethical omnivores, our mandate extends past animal welfare to whole environment welfare, we need to look at every aspect of food production and make it as sustainable as possible. Can we truly consider our lifestyles to be ethical if we don’t consider the wider implications of our choices and actions? This goes for producers as well as consumers, possibly even more so, producers have an environmental responsibility to reduce their impacts and give their customers an option that takes account of the zero waste movement. It’s only a matter of time before petroleum plastics become entirely untenable, producers need to step up and make changes now; we have the technology and the options available to us to clean up the environment, we need to act before we reach the point of no return.