Plastic wrap saves your sandwich but pollutes the planet. Is there a better solution?
This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.
The smooth, transparent film we now know as plastic wrap was originally a chemistry error, a residue clinging stubbornly to the bottom of a beaker in a 1930s lab. The military was using it. originally to garnish boots and airplanes. Today, consumers around the world and the grocery stores they shop at have more than 100 brands of the super water resistant substance to choose from.
Plastic wrap is popular in the United States. An industry research group found that in the past six months, nearly 80 million Americans had used at least one roll of plastic wrap, but more than five million Americans had browsed more than 10 million boxes. Commercial uses in supermarkets and shipping account for the additional three million tonnes of plastic wrap companies expect to do in 2019.
While cheap, portable packaging keeps leftovers fresher longer, there are several pitfalls: plastic packaging contributes to the biggest plastic pollution crisis, it’s hard to recycle, and it’s made from chemicals. potentially harmful, especially since they decompose in the environment.
“If you look back to the 1950s, when we didn’t have as efficient food storage as it is today, you can see why it was so popular,” explains Lea Bendell , marine ecotoxicologist from Simon Fraser University.
“We didn’t have plastic 70 years ago, then in the post-war boom you had chemists who were going to provide us with this brave new world. Pesticides, herbicides and plastics were a big part of it, ”she says.
Smooth and green
When Ralph Wiley discovered polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) while working in Dow Chemical’s physics lab in Midland, Michigan, he nicknamed it eonite after a fictitious, indestructible material from the comics “Little Orphan Annie “.
His task was to create a new product from hydrocarbons and chlorine, two byproducts of the manufacture of the perchlorethylene dry cleaning agent.
The new chemical was so water resistant that it could not be cleaned from its still flask. PVDC molecules bind together so tightly that they are almost impenetrable by oxygen and water molecules. These properties made the material attractive in war efforts and in American kitchens like Saran Wrap.
In the 1960s, Australian company GLAD created their own, albeit less sticky, version of polyethylene plastic wrap. Saran Wrap is also now made from polyethylene after consumers worried about the health effects of wrapping their food in chloride-based plastic.
Today, consumers around the world have brands of plastic film made from PVDC, PVC and polyethylene available to them.
Plastic seeps into the environment
Thin and fragile plastic-like bags are difficult to recycle; without specialized equipment, they clog machinery. And even when the plastic film is recycled, it is more expensive than using virgin materials. When it ends up in landfills or incinerators, PVC and PVDC can release a highly toxic chemical called dioxin, says the World Health Organization.
In marine environments, plastic wrap contributes to a larger plastic pollution crisis, but unlike other plastics, scientists find that PVC and PVDC do a great job at picking up bacteria and metals. These contaminated pieces of microplastic then harm the fish, which mistake them for food.
While environmental activists tend to advocate for the complete abandonment of the product, manufacturers point the finger at obsolete infrastructure.
Scott Defife, vice president of government affairs at the Plastics Industry Association, says plastic films could be easily recycled if our waste collection infrastructure wasn’t “in short supply.”
“We want the federal government to make investments,” he says. “They should see it as an essential public service like roads and bridges.”
The Plastics Industry Association promotes plastic wrap as an effective way to reduce food waste by keeping food fresh.
“Each of these materials was developed for a reason,” Defife explains.
PVC and PVDC differ in the slightly different chloride compositions in each molecule. Wrap Saran contains vinyl chloride, often 13%, and both typically contain toxic additives, Bendell said. The Food and drug administration regulates both, allowing less than a fraction of one percent of PVC and PVDC food packaging to migrate into food. At this level of exposure, it is highly unlikely that someone will be poisoned by their plastic wrap.
“If you have a PVC plate, is there a risk? Probably not, ”says Rolf Halden, environmental scientist at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. “But if we surround ourselves with PVCs and phthalates, they can leak or seep out of the product. This creates unwanted exposure.
In order to make plastics softer, more flexible and more transparent, they are often mixed with plasticizers, especially for food packaging, says Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineer at Michigan State University. A common class of plasticizers is a group of molecules called phthalates, a category that contains carcinogenic substances– although the PVC plastic film no longer contains them. This contains a plasticizer called DEHA, or diethylhexyl adipate, but its effects on human health are unclear.
PLANET OR PLASTIC?
Three things you can do to be part of the solution:
1. Switch from plastic wrap to reusable wax wrap.
2. Store leftovers in glass containers.
3. Cover foods with foil instead of plastic wrap.
Stretch-Tite manufactures plastic wrap containing PVC. In an email, they noted that their product is free from carcinogenic chemicals like BPA and phthalates, and they say the safety concerns about plastic packaging are not based on solid science.
Halden says: “Unlike infectious pathogens, the effects of exposure to toxic chemicals can take decades to manifest. And an increase in cancer rates, for example, would be difficult to relate directly to the chemicals in the plastic wrap.
The search for alternatives
Wax paper was used frequently in the decades before plastic wrap hit supermarket shelves, and it’s a reusable form of waxed paper that now offers an alternative to disposable plastics.
Bee’s Wrap is made by coating beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin on a thin strip of cotton. The warmth of your hands loosens the bonds, making them more flexible and sticky.
Co-owner of a start-up called Etee, Steve Reble says he took inspiration from ancient Egyptian wraps on mummies when he created his own version of reusable food wrap by coating a thin strip of cotton in a waxy barrier.
While still relatively new (Bee’s Wrap was founded in 2012 and Etee in 2017), they have indeed captured a demographic of consumers looking for alternatives to single-use plastics.
Reble says Etee food packaging has been able to remove more than 100 million square feet of plastic wrap over the past two years. Katie Flagg, a representative for Bee’s Wrap, says the business grew 87% last year.
Consumer research group Nielsen estimates that U.S. consumers will spend $ 150 billion on a wide variety of sustainable products by 2021.
“We are becoming more and more savvy about how we interact with our resources,” Flagg says.