Making the right choice is harder than it looks
There’s a classic American 1960s comedy sketch where a character called The 2,000 Year Old Man is asked, among other questions, to name the greatest invention of his lifetime. His enthusiastic answer: clear plastic cling wrap. “You can put a sandwich in it,” the very senior citizen says. “You can look through it. You can touch it…It clings and sticks. It’s great!”
Imagine if The 2,000 Year Old Man had survived to the 21st Century, a time when annual plastic production has reached 381 million tons. Plastic encircles the planet, for better and worse. Synthetic polymer jackets keep us warm in winter’s chill, plastic packaging serves up prepared food for short workday lunch breaks, crisp out-of-season vegetables reach our grocery shelves in shrink-wrapped plastic--and plastic encases the very device you’re using to read this.
“It is the plastic age,” says Indian plastics maven P. Marimuthu.
But the explosion of plastic in every corner of daily life has brought a pollution crisis. Plastic waste mars cities and towns, and contaminates the world’s soil, air, the sea and freshwater. The safety of chemicals used in plastic food packaging and consumer products are a growing concern. Today, a quarter of Orb Media survey respondents in dozens of countries say they’re extremely worried about plastic’s effect on the environment, and on human beings. Plastic waste kills millions of animals each year. Parents worry over what to feed their children - and what to feed them with. What’s to be done? Here, we examine four aspects of the Plastic Question, and some promising and difficult responses.
Marine Plastic Waste
In his 30 years as a South African conservation officer, Basil Pather has raided illegal fishing trawlers, stalked armed poachers through dry grassland, and dived under the Indian Ocean to hunt coral thieves.
None of it prepared him for the challenge of plastic. “There’s just a smothering, and an overwhelming sense that you can’t control it,” he says. At the coastal mangrove reserve where Pather is based, volunteers haul out between one and five tons of plastic waste every week.
The river estuary and beach are dotted with bright yellow bags stuffed with someone else’s dinner plates and deodorant. Every day there’s more. “There’s no one you can link it to,” Pather says, no chain of possession. “Plastic doesn’t have a name, except sometimes a label on a bottle.
There’s no accountability.” An estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste flow into the oceans each year, where they kill wildlife and infiltrate the food chain. All species of sea turtle, and more than half of marine mammals and sea birds are affected by entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, causing 1.1 million animal deaths per year.1
Microplastic in food and the environment
As the World Health Organization’s coordinator for safe drinking water, Bruce Gordon is usually responding to killer microbes like cholera and diahorreal diseases.
Since Orb Media first reported microplastic contamination in tap water and bottled water from around the world, Gordon has the added responsibility of identifying what is known -- and what’s not -- about how plastic in drinking water might affect the world’s 7.7 billion people.
Evidence of contamination is piling up. Recent studies have found microplastic in German mineral water,15 South African tap water,16 and Italian soft drinks.17 No one yet knows if consuming microplastic is harmful or not, or if they accumulate in the human body. Researchers last month reported finding microplastic including polypropylene and polyethylene-terephthalate18 in human stool.
“There’s a slew of missing information” when it comes to the human health effects of ingesting microplastic, Gordon says. Shellfish like oysters and mussels are known to contain microplastic, and microplastic fibers and particles have been found in the intestines of fish sold at markets around the world.
We haven’t yet seen a study that would determine the presence of microplastic in packaged food items. You’re probably shedding microplastic while going about your daily business: Car tires are a major source. So are polyester, acrylic, and other synthetic clothes. A 2017 study19 by European researchers revealed that a single five-kilogram machine load of polyester laundry can release as many as six million microplastic fibers into wastewater; a lot those fibers end up in rivers and lakes.
Chemicals in food packaging
Chemicals are integral to plastic; multitudes of chemical additives are used to make plastic products impact-resistant or soft, flexible or rigid, and temperature resistant. But many of these chemicals are known health hazards. Some are associated with cancer; others can play havoc on the body’s endocrine system, which can lead to problems including reproductive disorders and obesity.
Earlier this year, researchers compared a European Union registry of restricted hazardous chemicals with a separate list of substances approved for use in plastic - including food packaging.21 Hundreds of chemicals were on both lists. “What really is surprising and also a bit frustrating is that we see chemicals that are really well-studied, that are known to be hazardous, and still they are allowed and are used in food packaging,” says study co-author Jane Muncke, of the Food Packaging Forum, a research organization.
For example, six plastic additives, called phthalates, that are banned from use in children’s toys are nevertheless permitted in European food packaging. Some manufacturers aren’t alarmed. “Plastic, if you make [it] as per standard...as such plastic doesn't give any trouble to food contact,” says factory owner P. Marimuthu.
Critics say safety standards are insufficient. And the process of making plastic is so volatile that it creates, and exposes consumers to, unapproved byproducts. In 2007, biochemist Emma Bradley22 made, from scratch, six plastics used in food packaging. She knew all the chemicals used create fresh polypropylene (takeout containers), polyethylene (milk jugs), polystyrene (takeout containers), polyvinyl chloride (cling film), polyethylene terephthalate (bottles), and nylon (pouches). Still Bradley’s analysis of her new plastics revealed chemicals she couldn’t identify.23
Difficult to recycle
The UK recycles more than 70 percent of its packaging waste,30 thanks to strong regulation of its landfills.
That still means that tons of plastic isn’t. Most of the unrecyclable plastic at Suez Recycling & Recovery UK is black plastic,31 used to package items like fresh meat and microwave dinners. Experts say these “junk” plastics, which are dyed black to create a “premium” look, should be replaced with higher-quality polymers. Geraint Ashcroft, a retired engineer in Wales, was peeved to learn that in a country that consumes more than six billion packets32 of crisps, or potato chips, each year, the bags weren’t being recycled. “I still like my bag of crisps,” Ashcroft says, “and I never said don't eat crisps. But we've got to get aware of what we're doing with those packaging afterwards.”
Brightly-colored metallized films like those used to extend the shelf-life of crunchy snacks are part of a range of hybrid packaging that actually can be recycled but which lacks the needed volume or infrastructure to make recycling economical. “I can’t do anything with this,” says Amos Bonoko, who collects plastic and paper waste for recycling from the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa. “There is no market - no one will take it.” In the UK, these plastics are often burned as fuel for power plants.
In South Africa, the nonprofit Dung Beetle Project is creating a low-cost machine that converts unrecycled plastic waste into fuel gas and diesel. One Dung Beetle can generate enough electricity for ten local homes, says co-cofounder Jeffrey Barbee. But whether it’s on an industrial or a community scale, waste-to-energy is a waste of energy when compared with recycling, says Arturo Castillo, an industrial ecologist at Imperial College.
ENJOY READING THE FULL MULTIMEDIA REPORT ONLINE
 Email, Adam Read, Suez Recycling & Recovery UK
 Kershaw, P.J., Biodegradable Plastics & Marine Litter: Misconceptions, Concerns and Impacts on Marine Environments. 2015: UNEP GPA.
 Boonniteewanich, J., et al., Evaluation of carbon footprint of bioplastic straw compared to petroleum based straw products. Energy Procedia, 2014. 56: p. 518-524.
 Gallup Poll Social Series: Environment; Timberline: 937008; Jeff Jones, Lydia Saad, March 1-5, 2017
 Lewis, H., K. Verghese, and L. Fitzpatrick, Evaluating the sustainability impacts of packaging: the plastic carry bag dilemma. Packaging Technology and Science: An International Journal, 2010. 23(3): p. 145-160.
 Report FD 07/01: An investigation into the reaction and breakdown products from starting substances used to produce food contact plastics; Food Safety Authority, 2007
 Interview, Emma Bradley
 Adam Read, Suez Recycling & Recovery UK
The following is a list of contributors to the story
Major design contribution by JAG Global Learning
Producers: Dan Morrison, Roxanne R. Campbell, Lesedi Mogoathle
Camera, Video Editors, and Photo Editors: Roxanne R. Campbell, Timothy Sternberg, Salem Rizk, Kevin Sutherland, Nimalan Arooran, Nicola Muirhead, Jabulani Dlamini, Narayana Swamy Subbaraman
Photo and Video Credits
Problem 1 video: Salem Rizk, Kevin Sutherland
Problem 1 photos: Jabulani Dlamini, National Environmental Management Agency (Kenya), Nicola Muirhead
Problem 2 video: Christopher Tyree, The Rozalia Project, Salem Rizk
Problem 2 photos: Christopher Tyree, The Rozalia Project, Langbrett
Problem 3 Video: Salem Rizk
Problem 3 photos: Nimalan Arooran, Food Packaging Forum, Salem Rizk
Problem 4 Video: TerraCycle, Kevin Sutherland
Problem 4 photos: Nicola Muirhead, Jabulani Dlamini, Kate Gibb, Aino Kattelus, Geraint Ashcroft, Jonathan Bloom (WastedFood.com), Weston Baxter
Additional Graphics: Graphicacy
Researchers: Therese Karlsson, Diana Dabruzzo
Translators: Aline Arbid, Rana Saifi, Renata Johnson, Patricia Malentaqui, Oscar Platero
Website Design by Uncharted Digital
Walking along a short section of stony beach, Claire Waluda stoops briefly to pick up something from between the rocks. It is a brightly coloured plastic bottle top – just one of hundreds of bits of plastic that she finds washed ashore on the remote, windswept island of South Georgia.
Located in the south Atlantic, on the fringes of the Antarctic, it is nearly 1,000 miles (1,500km) from the nearest major human settlement. Yet even here Waluda, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey, is finding worrying signs of our throw-away attitude towards plastic. Regularly she finds seals entangled in this debris or albatross chicks coughing up bits of plastic film.
Plastic litter now clutters every part of our planet, from remote parts of the Antarctic to the deepest ocean trenches
These are just a few examples of the damage our throw-away relationship with plastics is inflicting on the environment. More than 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced worldwide every year by an industry worth nearly $198 billion. Just a fraction of that is recycled while the vast majority is thrown away. Plastic litter now clutters every part of our planet, from remote parts of the Antarctic to the deepest ocean trenches.
High profile campaigns and TV programmes such as the finale of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, where Sir David Attenborough highlighted the problems plastics are causing in the world’s oceans, have led to growing public alarm over the issue. In response to mounting pressure, governments, manufacturers and retailers are beginning to take steps to tackle the tide of plastic waste. But how much will this fundemantal change to the way we buy our goods actually cost?
Many of the companies attempting to tackle the amount of plastic waste generated by their products admit it will eat into their profits. Coca-Cola, for example, produces 38,250 tonnes of plastic packaging in the UK each year and estimates indicate it sells more than 110 billion single-use plastic bottlesglobally. The company has pledged to double the amount of recycled material in its plastic bottles in the UK and is trialling refillable bottles. Although it refuses to give details, Coca-Cola says these efforts will increase costs.
And even companies that have been dragging their heels will soon have to address the amount of plastic packaging they use. More than 60 countries are introducing legislation aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags and other single use plastic materials. This month, tiny Pacific island nation Vanuatu became the first in the world to ban single use plastic bags, straws and polystyrene food containers.
About eight million metric tonnes of plastic are thrown into the ocean annually, according to data cited by Earth Day Network (Credit: Getty Images)
The cost of change
Several major supermarkets, including multinationals Tesco and Walmart, have already promised to reduce the amount of plastic packaging they sell their products in. Alongside Coca-Cola, drinks manufacturers Pepsi, food and cleaning multinational Unilever, food producer Nestle and cosmetics company L’Oreal have also pledged to ensure all their packaging is either reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
But despite these commitments, much of the food and drinks industry is still trying to work out how it will meet the targets it has helped to set for itself. Some experts fear that without the right approach, this rush to banish plastics from our shopping baskets will make the goods we buy more expensive.
“It is not as simple as ‘plastic is bad’ so let’s use something else,” warns Eliot Whittington, policy programme director at the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership, where he advises drinks manufacturers on reducing waste. “It will require a complete change in the way we use product packaging at the moment. Most packaging is now used just once and thrown away. We need to move away from that. It needs some form of leadership from government.”
Pinch and zoom on mobile to expand.
More than a third of the food sold in the EU now comes packaged in plasticand each of its 510 million residents produce about 31kg of plastic packaging waste a year. One reason plastic is so dominant is its ability to do more, for less: it takes less material to make a drinks bottle out of plastic, for example, than it does to make one out of glass.
Plastics are cheap, lightweight and adaptable in ways many of the alternatives are not – Susan Selke
“Plastics are cheap, lightweight and adaptable in ways many of the alternatives are not,” says Susan Selke, director of the school of packaging at Michigan State University.
Fifty years ago, before the plastics revolution had gathered pace, most drinks were sold in glass bottles. Today almost all soft drink bottles are made from a tough plastic material called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.
While the cost of producing bottles can vary depending on the raw material and energy prices at the time, it is generally not that much more expensive to produce a glass bottle versus one made from PET – about $0.01 more, according to some analysis.
However, when manufacturers start transporting produce in glass bottles, costs start to rise. A 330ml plastic soft drink bottle contains around 18 grams of material while a glass bottle can weigh between 190g and 250g.Transporting drinks in the heavier containers requires 40% more energy, producing more polluting carbon dioxide as they do and increasing transport costs by up to five times per bottle.
“In many cases plastics are actually better for the environment than the alternatives,” explains Selke. “It is surprising until you look closely at it.”
More than 60 countries are introducing legislation aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags and other single use plastic materials (Credit: Getty Images)
A report by the American Chemistry Council and environmental accounting firm Trucost estimates that the environmental costs – which places a value on dealing with the pollution generated by a product – would be five times higher if the soft drinks industry used alternative packaging like glass, tin or aluminium instead of plastic. As governments seek to penalise polluting companies with carbon taxes and levies, these costs may be passed onto consumers.
One report estimated environmental costs would be five times higher if the soft drinks industry used alternative packaging like glass, tin or aluminium instead of plastic
“Food costs are going to increase – there can be no doubt about that,” says Dick Searle, chief executive of the British Packaging Federation, which represents the industry in the UK. Using glass milk bottles instead of plastic, for example, can lead to additional costs for producers.
But does this mean the costs will be passed back to shoppers?
Iceland, a British supermarket that pledged to remove plastics from its packaging by 2023, is already switching its ready meals from black plastic trays to ones made from paper and plans to use other packaging materials like glass and cellulose, which is made from wood.
“Making this change is going to cost money,” warns Richard Walker, the chain’s managing director. “But we are determined that our customers will not have to foot the bill.”
Soft drinks plastic packaging makes up around 20% of the total food and drink packaging on the market, according to data from Coca Cola (Credit: Getty Images)
There are some, however, who warn that abandoning plastic after nearly 70 years of using it to package our food could have other far more costly, unintended consequences.
What may at first appear to be a wasteful plastic bag wrapped around your cucumber, for example, is actually a sophisticated tool for increasing the shelf-life of your food. Years of research have allowed plastics to push the time food lasts for from days to weeks.
“I think people underestimate the benefits of plastics in reducing food waste,” says Anthony Ryan, professor of chemistry and director of The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.
The shrink wrap used on cucumbers for instance, can more than double the length of time the vegetable can last, allowing it to be kept for up to 15 days in the fridge and cutting food waste in half. An unwrapped cucumber would last just two days at room temperature and 9 days if refrigerated.
A meaty problem
Beef bought in polystyrene foam trays covered with plastic film will generally last between three and seven days. However if it is vacuum-packed in multilayer plastic, it can be kept for up to 45 days without spoiling. Environmental accounting firm Trucost estimate that vacuum-packing sirloin steak can cut food waste almost in half compared to conventional plastic.
Much of the food we now buy in supermarkets comes tightly wrapped in sealed plastic films and protective trays. This keeps fresh meat in an oxygen-free atmosphere, helping to prevent it from spoiling. Delicate fruit and vegetables are also kept safe from bumps that can degrade them, meaning they’re more likely to be sold. Putting grapes in their own individual plastic boxes has been found to cut food waste by 75%.
Plastic wrapping can also keep fruit and vegetables in their own little microclimates – known in the industry as modified atmosphere packaging – which can help to prevent them from ripening too quicky. Putting sweet peppers into a bag with a modified atmosphere can extend their lifespan from four days to 20, according to the Flexible Packaging Association. Extending the shelf life of food can greatly reduce the cost of food waste to supermarkets. Extending the shelf life of produce by just one day would save shoppers in the UK up to £500 million ($661m), according to anti-waste charity Wrap.
The global cost of food waste is already estimated to be almost $1 trillion a year, which is largely borne by manufacturers and retailers. While some believe that single-use plastic packaging has actually led to an increase in the amount of food we throw away by encouraging a culture of disposability, many in the plastics industry argue that without plastic packaging, the cost of food waste could rise.
In this light, it might not make sense to ban plastics altogether but instead make plastics better.
“Rather than going back, it is perhaps more useful to look at innovation,” says Eliot Whittington. “There are more and more companies that are reinventing plastics with additives that help them break down or making plastics that are biodegradable.”
Whittington points to the growing bioplastics industry, which uses starch or protein from plants like sugarcane to generate the basic hydrocarbon materials needed to create plastics. Some of these bioplastics are not biodegradable at all, but others – like polylactic acid (PLA) – can break down over time and some are compostable, meaning they disintegrate entirely rather than merely crumbling into smaller “microplastics”.
One company that has already shifted to bioplastic is British skincare company Bulldog. It has swapped its traditional plastic tubes for polyethylene made from sugarcane.
The new tubes are more expensive but “we still think it is the right thing to do,” says Simon Duffy, the company’s founder.
Another bioplastics leader is Coca-Cola, which two years ago launched the PlantBottle, a PET partially made with Brazilian sugarcane. It too has found that producing bottles from plants comes at a premium, although it wouldn’t share with BBC Capital what this cost was.
Looking at a few examples, however, it becomes apparent just how much more expensive bioplastics can be.
A burger box made from sugarcane for instance, is almost twice as expensive as one made from polystyrene. A biodegradable takeaway fork made from plant starch costs 3.5 times more than a basic white plastic one.
Neither Bulldog or Coca-Cola are using bioplastics that can be considered biodegradable or compostable, instead encouraging consumers to recycle their bioplastics. And, in fact, there is some resistance to the widespread use of biodegradable materials.
“Bioplastics like PLA are huge contaminate for traditional recycling,” says Dick Searle.
Surprisingly, due to rising oil prices, recycled plastic is actually cheaper to use than fresh, virgin plastic made from oil. A tonne of virgin PET costs around £1,000 while clear recycled PET costs just £158 per tonne.
Contamination of PET plastic with PLA, however, can leave the resulting bottle weaker and unfit for use, meaning the whole batch will have to be discarded. As manufacturers try to reduce their plastic footprint by using greener, biodegradable plastics, the risk of mixing with conventional plastics will only increase, potentially driving up the cost of recycled materials.
“Introducing these innovative products in a system that is used to more traditional waste stream is difficult economically,” says Whittington.
It is a problem that will require new ways of identifying, sorting and dealing with plastic materials when they are thrown away to ensure biodegradable materials are kept separate from those that can be recycled.
Plastic films and protective trays keep fresh meat in an oxygen free atmosphere, helping to prevent it from spoiling (Credit: Getty Images)
But Anthony Ryan sees other problems with the widespread use of biodegradable packaging.
“It treats the symptoms, not the disease,” he says. “If the disease is our throw-away society, making packaging biodegradable only encourages people to throw more away.”
Instead, he suggests another solution: use more plastic.
“In modern meat or soft fruit packaging you might have several thin layers to give it strength, to stop gas permeability and to act as an adhesive,” he explains. “You could get all of these properties from a single thicker piece of polyethylene. Then you would have a reduced set of materials, which would make separating and recycling this stuff easier.”
He believes that making plastics more durable could help solve the current waste problem that is blighting our planet. Rather than abolishing plastics altogether, he proposes reusing the packaging we currently throw away.
Already deposit and reuse schemes like this – where plastic bottles are returned in exchange for a cash deposit and then are refilled – are in use in Finland, Germany, Denmark and parts of Australia.
According to research by the European Commission, however, reuse and refill schemes like this can work out to be up to five times more expensive than using packaging once and then throwing it away. But the World Economic Forum found innovative reuse and refill measures could actually reduce packaging costs by at least $8 billion a year,savings that could potentially be passed onto consumers.
And as many countries seek to introduce new laws that will put new levies on plastic bags and ban certain types of single use packaging, refillable and reusable options may become more attractive.
For Claire Waluda, whose team is monitoring the levels of plastic waste in South Georgia, the price of making these changes is one worth paying.
“We are seeing wandering albatross parents feeding plastic to their chicks,” she says. “Anything that can reduce the amount of plastic debris in the environment is a step in the right direction.”