Plastic is everywhere in our lives today and is often painted as a villain that is causing irreversible damage to our environment. However, just pause and think how our lives will be if we did not have plastic. Our day starts with plastic when we use that toothbrush and ends with it assuming you are maintaining a good habit to brush before sleep!
All during the day, we use plastic in numerous ways from getting milk packets, using plastic bottles and lunch boxes, using a computer or laptop that has a plastic keyboard and a plastic mouse, using plastic glasses and plates, and traveling in a car that has a plastic dashboard. You get it now. Plastic is everywhere and it is unavoidable. Plastic is a blessing for mankind in many ways.
Plasticity refers to the ability to mold a material into a given shape such that the shape is retained. While natural plastics like chewing gum or shellac existed for several centuries, mass production of synthetic plastic such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or bakelite came into existence from 1907 onwards. Since then, plastic has never looked back.
Plastic comes in two major forms. Thermosets are plastic variants that do not lose shape on exposure to heat, while thermoplastics can be molten when exposed to heat. Plastic is made predominantly using various by-products from crude oil through processes called polymerization and polycondensation.
Plastic is used in many industries for the benefit of mankind, such as in the packaging industry, transportation, electrical and electronics, agriculture, medical and health, and sports to name a few.
When it comes to touching our lives through food, plastic has many uses, such as in food packaging, plastic utensils, plastic bottles, plastic food containers and use of plastic as a carry bag. Plastic containers are sturdy and lightweight, keep the food hygienic and free from contamination. Further, the mass production of plastic ensures that the costs of plastic vis-a-vis alternatives is highly advantageous.
Despite many advantages, plastic is also causing few heartburns that are primarily due to us not using it responsibly. Plastic, just like any other power can be a blessing and a curse when we forget to use it responsibly.
Littering of the plastic bags, plastic bottles and many daily plastic materials has become a growing nightmare for all cities and is now beginning to impact our ecosystem causing irreversible damage to the soil. A large amount of this waste is also making its way to our rivers and seas, causing extensive damage to the environment.
Firstly, we are still far from reaching a stage where plastic can be made completely biodegradable like other materials such as paper or cardboard. Less than one percent of manufactured plastic comes in the biodegradable form. The biodegradable plastic cannot be expected to degrade naturally into the soil when littered around but has to be treated to expedite degradation. Burning of plastic in garbage poses its own set of challenges causing carbon emissions and leading to the generation of other toxic ingredients into the air.
The second set of problems emanate from unsafe use of plastic when it comes into touch with our food. Food consumed in certain plastic containers is known to cause health issues due to leaching of certain chemicals. In this article, we will focus on what are the known hazards of plastic exposure in our food.
Leaching of chemicals from Plastic into food
As shared earlier, plastic is primarily mass manufactured in modern times by using various by-products from crude oil. During the manufacturing process, few chemicals may be added to provide different capabilities to the plastic to control properties such as texture, strength, and sturdiness of the manufactured plastic product. Similarly, few chemicals may be added to impart color to the finished plastic product.
When the food comes into contact with such plastic containers, a small amount of these chemicals are known to inevitably leak into the food. The extent of leakage may vary based on a factor such as the duration of contact with the container, whether food is heated in the container and also the type of food. Foods that contain fatty acids can suffer from a relatively larger amount of leakage. The non-stick coating is also made of a plastic called Teflon which is generally safe but can leach toxic chemicals at very high temperature.
Two chemicals that are high in the suspect category include bisphenol A and chemicals known as phthalates. Bisphenol A is a chemical that helps makes the plastic hard and lightweight. BPA is known to leach into the food and cause disruption to our hormone system. Likewise, phthalates are also known to cause an imbalance in the hormones system.
Here are few ways to reduce or minimize plastic in our food
- Use safer alternatives such as water bottles with steel or glass lining on the inside.
- Ensure that the container has a steel lining when it is used to store any hot food item.
- Don’t microwave food in plastic containers even when the container has a microwave safe label.
- Use safer dishware and utensils that are made of steel or glass.
- Discard plastic containers that are scratched or worn out.
- Do not use plastic bottles such as water or soda bottles for storing water as they are meant for single-time use.
- Store food, especially wet food in glass or pyrex containers than storing in plastic.
Non-stick cookware is another way where plastic comes into our life
The non-stick coating is made of a chemical called Teflon. While it is believed that it is generally safe to use a non-stick when the cooking is done at low temperatures, use at high temperature should be avoided. Further, if the coating is scratched or chipped, it is recommended to replace it immediately.
For food items that require high temperature and long time, it is best to avoid a non-stick cooking option and use alternatives such as a steel or cast-iron cookware.
If you prefer to use non-stick, keep following precautions in mind.
- Use only for food items that require low-temperature heat
- Never preheat the cookware at high temperature, even with oil.
- Avoid using a damaged or chipped non-stick cookware.
Plastics are here to stay and one cannot avoid them completely, but one can minimize the health hazards by being aware of how to use plastic safely in our lives.