A challenge to the “if it’s not broke don’t fix it mentality”

 

Recycling. Love or loathe it, it’s a government initiative which is here to stay. And in the most part, it is a wonderful thing. But then we come to the thorny issues of plastic recycling. Look at most plastic bottles in your day to day life, and you’ll see the recycling symbol. That’s a good thing, right? Sure, by recycling the materials we are reducing demand on the raw materials – crude oil and virgin plastic. But recycling is only effective with consumer compliance, and can only be done a finite amount of times.

 

Looking at just one type of plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as an example, let’s look at the pros and cons of continuing to use petrochemical based plastics in food packaging.

 

Cons

 

The production of this material involves the use of toxic and potentially toxic chemicals. Phthalate esters have been shown to be possible endocrine disruptors – chemicals which act like hormones in the body and can interfere with normal male and female hormone production, as well as causing potential damage to the foetus and may be linked to some cancers.

 

The production process of PET involves the use of antinomy based catalysts, such as antimony triacetate or antimony trioxide. The element antinomy is not dangerous, but when it becomes a compound, and particularly in the case of antinomy trioxide, then the material may be carcinogenic.

 

Acetaldehyde and formaldehyde are produced during the process. Both materials are hazardous to health in high concentrations.

 

 

 

Pros

 

The material is accepted by the food industry and relatively cheap

 

 

 

It is worth noting, that to recycle PET to be able to be reused for food, complete depolymerisation is required, which not only produces the chemicals listed above, but also requires vast amounts of energy to perform this depolymerisation. This seems like a lot of hassle to go to for a material which will probably end up being discarded anyway…

 

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, recycling is a fantastic scheme. And even recycling plastics is better than single use then discarding to landfill, but the use of traditional petrochemical plastics is unsustainable – and just because we have always used a material, there is no excuse to continue its use if that material is known to be a danger to health. It truly is time for a change. Time to switch to sustainable, renewable bioplastic based packaging.

 

 

 

Dr Ryan Taylor