Their impact isn't just environmental; it starts in your body.
The impact of disposable food packaging goes beyond its contamination of the environment. It is also bad for human health. Scientists and consumer advocates are speaking out against the chemicals used in plastic production that can leach into food.
From the Guardian: "We’re just beginning to understand some of the short- and long-term risks associated with the chemicals in packaging: obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and other health issues."If bringing your own reusable containers wasn't a priority before, it should be now! Here's a list of specific packaging you should try to avoid for health reasons.
1. Coffee cups
These are lined in plastic to prevent liquids from seeping into the paper outer layer, which means you're steeping boiling liquids in a plastic film. This is "probably not the safest thing to do," according to Elizabeth Balkan, food waste director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Solution: Try a short-stack coffee mug. It'll change your life.
2. Takeout containers
All takeout food containers, even plastic-lined paper ones, are a bad idea, especially if the food going into them is hot, as this triggers leaching of chemicals used in manufacturing. The Guardian cites a study from last year that found
"nearly two-thirds of paper takeout containers from the [UK's] five largest grocery stores contained elevated levels of fluorine, which meant that they were probably treated with PFAS, a group of industrial chemicals no longer manufactured in the US. The same was true for 11% of bakery and deli papers tested."
PFAS has been linked to reproductive, developmental, immunological, liver, and kidney problems in animals, and may contribute to low birth rate and thyroid disruption.
Solution: Build a zero waste emergency food kit and tell restaurants when you order that you're bringing your own container.
3. Aluminum beverage cans
Cans are lined with a hormone-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA) epoxy. This layer is supposed to prevent the liquid from coming into contact with the aluminum and altering its taste, but it has the nasty side-effect of leaching BPA into your drink. BPA is an endocrine disruptor, linked to infertility, metabolic disorders, and cancers. Low doses, received over a long period of time, are considered more harmful than high. We've covered this many times on TreeHugger; more info here.
Solution: Buy drinks in glass. Bonus points for bottle deposit schemes that allow those bottles to be reused.
4. Plastic-wrapped produce
There is a tendency to think that vegetables and fruit wrapped in plastic are cleaner than loose ones, but the Guardian writes that this disposable packaging "might actually introduce chemicals that could infiltrate your food." Yuck! Crinkly, clingy plastic films contain phthalates, which are notorious endocrine disruptors. And the films used in vegetables are usually unmarked, making it hard to identify what might be in them. They also can't be recycled and go straight to landfill (read: some unfortunate animal's gut). Best to stay away.
Solution: Buy loose, unpackaged produce in cloth produce bags.
See the Guardian's full list of packaging to avoid. Yes, there's more...