Plastic free July: How to stop accidentally consuming plastic particles from packaging

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Plastic particles from food packaging are everywhere - even in your teabags.

Plastic is everywhere and we're consuming too much of it - literally. 

The average person has been said to consume a credit-card size amount of plastic every week -  made up from thousands of tiny pieces of plastic in our water and food. 

Massey University environmental anthropologist Dr Trisia Farrelly says there needs to be greater awareness in New Zealand about what food is delivered and sealed inside. 

"Experts in the field are saying that [credit card amount] is an underestimation ...  we're actually consuming a startling amount of plastic." 

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Dr Trisia Farrelly recently attended an international conference in the United States on the latest findings on food and beverage contamination from plastic packaging.
MURRAY WILSON/STUFF
Dr Trisia Farrelly recently attended an international conference in the United States on the latest findings on food and beverage contamination from plastic packaging.

Tiny fragments of plastic called microplastics and toxins from plastic production can come from the most unlikely places - even tea bags. 

"The trouble with microplastics is they can get through your gut and get in to your respiratory organs," Farrelly said.

"Microplastics we're ingesting can have a detrimental effect on our health."   

Research has shown added toxicants to food packaging can be harmful because they can act as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which can be hazardous at extremely low doses.  

The Endocrine Society has previously said that growing evidence leaves no doubt that EDCs contribute to rising rates of chronic disease including obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Some substances were added during the recycling process, and additives to plastic such as flame retardants and colourants were all part of the picture, Farrelly said. 

However, there were some simple things people could do to stop plastic leaching in to their food.

Tea bags could also be to blame for the world's microplastic problems - some of them have plastic and adhesives inside them.
123rf
Tea bags could also be to blame for the world's microplastic problems - some of them have plastic and adhesives inside them.

Risks increased when plastic was heated, treated abrasively or exposed to fat or acidic conditions, she said. 

Many people knew about Biphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in some plastics, and were seeking out BPA-free containers. 

BPA could be found in the lining of some cans, so it paid to shop around to find BPA-free products - organic brands often were. 

Plastic in the dishwasher could also release microplastics due to the abrasive nature of the cleaning, she said.  

Some plastics also shouldn't be washed abrasively or at high temperatures.
ANDREW GORRIE/STUFF
Some plastics also shouldn't be washed abrasively or at high temperatures.

Heating up plastic containers could also release toxins in to food, Farrelly said.  "You don't want to be putting your plastic in your microwave if possible.   

"Even in drink bottles there's plastic ... so you don't want to be leaving your plastic water bottle in the sun on a very hot day." 

People could also avoid the plastic which could come from takeaway coffee cups with plastic lids, she said. 

"Coffee cups lids are polystyrene, and they're hard polystyrene. So if you're sucking your fatty milky latte through that, you want to be avoiding it." 

Even the tea bag in a calming cup of tea could be to blame for the world's microplastic problems - some of them have plastic and adhesives inside them. 

Farrelly said awareness of the risks could spark positive change in the food industry and among consumers.

"Regulations need to come first so we're clear on what chemicals should be banned in food packaging."  

SWAPS TO REDUCE PLASTIC CONSUMPTION 

BPA-lined cans 

Alternative: Choose cans without BPA lining - many organic brands. Or buy in glass jars. 

Plastic drink bottles

Alternative: Get a stainless steel bottle to refill.  

Microwave containers made of plastic

Alternative: Buy glass containers which are safer to microwave. 

Takeaway coffee cup with a plastic lid 

Alternative: Bring a keep cup to prevent the coffee reacting with the plastic lid.

Tea bags 

Alternative: Find plastic-free tea bags or drink loose-leaf tea.

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