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Real Science

Plastic food packaging

Michael Rosenthal

(1/2017) Slowly but surely plastic packaging has taken over the supermarket. Almost every food product there now comes enclosed in plastic; though this is convenient to both the shopper and to the seller, it has a growing negative environmental impact. Many food items that we can remember packaged in other ways now come routinely enclosed in plastic. Resealable plastic pouches are found on many supermarket products, even in refrigerators; they are made from multilayer films. Plastic has even replaced the tuna fish can we all remember well. Meat departments are offering steak, ribs, and chicken packed in plastic. The convenience of the plastic materials is offset by the difficulty of recycling, compared to the simpler metal, paper, and glass containers they replace. So, these newer materials end up in landfills or are found in the oceans. They do, however, prevent food waste, since they are more effective in long-term preservation. So, like many other products, one must measure the positive impact versus the negative impact, and try to find ways to minimize the negative impact.

Polyethylene is the primary chemical that is utilized in plastic packaging, and there are other polymer plastics that suits particular products. Food products need a polymer that prevents oxygen from entering the package and damaging the food through oxidation.

One might wonder why plastic packaging is needed for a vegetable, such as cucumbers. Polyethylene shrink wrap protects the surface of the cucumber, helping it retain moisture and extending its shelf life from three days to fourteen days. Plastic packaging can extend the shelf life of meats, using polystyrene foam trays and a plastic film, from four days to a month.

Since multilayer plastic containers cannot have their layers separated after use, they are sometimes shredded and made into plastic pellets to use in different ways. This process is called "cascaded recycling," and is not a technique favored by the environmentally conscious.

A report was recently issued by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that attempts to bridge the gap between industry and environmental activists on this issue, drawing upon information from environmental groups and the chemical companies that manufacture plastics. Data from this report indicate that the scale is striking. In 2013 industry produced 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging. Forty percent of that was landfilled, and 32 % was let loose on the environment, polluting land and sea. Only 28 % was collected for further use, half recycled and half incinerated for energy. The report states that only 2% of the 78 million metric tons was recycled into high-value applications.

One of the most serious problems stemming from this plastic use is contamination of the oceans. Coastal cleanup operations indicate that packaging accounts for more than 60 percent of the plastic waste recovered. Abandoning the use of plastic in food packaging is not the answer, since so much food waste will occur. Not only does this food waste impact the feeding of the population, but it results in a very high impact on freshwater use and oil consumption.

Thus like so many issues, more efforts are required to balance the pluses and minuses of increasing use of plastic in food packaging.

Another aspect of the plastic use issue involves use of plastic bags. The widespread use of plastic bags has contributed to a great deal of negative environmental impact. Such bags are recyclable, but many people think recycling is too much trouble, and they just throw them in the trash. Placing a financial charge on the bag is another technique. California has enacted a law through a statewide ballot supporting a 2014 legislative act passed by their lawmakers to become the only state to ban the use of single-use plastic bags. Some $6 million was spent by the plastic bag industry to defeat the issue, but to no avail. California is the world’s sixth largest economy and home to nearly 39 million people, so the ban will have significant financial and environmental impact.

As America moves to a new presidency under a different political party, it is well to review the scientific initiatives during the last eight years under President Obama. Early in his presidency, President Obama overturned his predecessor’s ban on using federal money to support stem cell research. His fiscal stimulus package signed into law in his first month included much science funding. Climate change and energy production were major concerns of the Obama administration. A very important accomplishment was the successful bipartisan effort to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act, enhancing regulatory certainty and consumer safety. In spite of the frequent differences of opinion between President Obama and the Congress, the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation and The Brain Initiative won congressional funding. Other medical initiatives got started. What will the new administration under President Trump do with these and other proposed science initiatives? Time will tell.

Now it’s time for some humor! We are all familiar with the Nobel Prizes, and this year’s prizes include the Nobel award in Literature to Bob Dylan (I have been a fanatic Bob Dylan fan since the 1960s), who in his typical Dylanesque fashion, did not attend the award ceremony, and accepted the award with a submitted message and a performance of a Dylan song by Patti Smith. This is a good opening to a report on the IgNobel Prizes for 2016. The 26th Annual IgNobel Prizes were awarded at Harvard University in September. Actual Nobel Laureates hand out the awards, designed to make people laugh and then make them think. The IgNobel Prize for Reproduction went (sadly, posthumously) to Ahmed Shafik, who dressed 75 male rats in either 100% polyester, a 50%-50% polyester-cotton mix, 100% cotton, 100% wool, or "naked," to see which group was more or less interested in rat "affection. It turned out that the presence of polyester discouraged affection between rats, possibly due to the creation of electrostatic fields. Gabor Horvath won the Physics Prize by finding that white-haired horses are the most horsefly-proof equines. Charles Foster, author of Being A Beast, and Thomas Thwaites, author of Goatman, shared the Biology Prize for their living in the wild as various species and reflecting upon their experiences. The IgNobel Peace Prize was awarded for a book whose title cannot be published here, but is available upon request from me or at the internet address below. In addition IgNobel Prizes were awarded in Medicine, Psychology. and Economics, and a "Perception Prize," details of which can also be found online. Most important to me, the Chemistry Prize went to Volkswagen "for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested." The full list of IgNobel winners for 2016 and for previous years can be found at

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal