Environmental & Health Dangers of Plastic Food Packaging

Plastic food packaging is a major source of global plastic pollution, and in certain forms it is also associated with concerning human health risks.

A recent beach clean-up spanning 120 countries with a million volunteers found that plastic food packaging remains the second most common rubbish item, second only to cigarettes. This is a major environmental concern, with 78m metric tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year, of which 86% is not recycled.

From bread and pasta, to meat, cheese and fresh fruits and vegetables, much of our food supply comes in plastic food packaging. Recent studies however have found evidence of certain chemicals migrating from packaging to food, some of which are potentially quite harmful.

Here's a breakdown of the different types of plastic packaging, and which to avoid for your and your children's health.

Types of Plastic Food Packaging

The types of plastic used in food & drink packaging are generally identifiable by an embossed code number ranging from 1 to 7, as listed below with some typical examples:

  1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): Water and soft drink bottles, condiment jars
  2. High density polyethylene (HDPE): Milk and cream bottles, yoghurt tubs, cereal liners
  3. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): Cling wrap, clear plastic fruit containers, clear sandwich packs, soft drink bottles
  4. Low density polyethylene (LDPE): Take-away containers, water-proof coating inside milk cartons, bread and frozen food bags, cling wrap
  5. Polypropylene (PP): Bottle caps, margarine and yoghurt containers, food storage containers
  6. Polystyrene (PS): Plastic cutlery, foam drinking cups and coffee cups
  7. All others, including polycarbonate: Sauce bottles, baby bottles, infant drinking cups, hard transparent bottles.

What's the Problem with Plastic?

Some plastics are considered safe, and some more risky than others. Two of particular concern are PVC and polycarbonate.

Polycarbonate and BPA

Polycarbonate (code numbered 7) is often used in hard plastic bottles and can liners, which can release bisphenol A (BPA) when in contact with food and drink. Researchers believe BPA may lead to serious health problems, even at very low doses.

BPA is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can mimic the body's natural hormones with potentially lifelong effects on brain developmentfertility, breast & prostate cancer risk and other health issues.

Children are most vulnerable to these chemicals because of their lower body weight and the strong influence of hormones upon growth and development.

PVC and Phthalates

PVC (code numbered 3) is typically known for its use in hard PVC pipe. However, when PVC is used in food packaging, it is softened with plasticisers such as phthalates.

Some phthalates are suspected endocrine disruptors and several studies suggest childhood exposure may affect normal development and increase the risk of allergic diseases including asthma and eczema, as well as airway inflammation.

One of the most commonly used phthalates, diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), is also generally considered to impact on reproductive development.

Plastic Food Packaging to Avoid

There's no real need for using potentially harmful plastics like polycarbonate or PVC in food packaging given other options, but many foods are still being sold in contact with such materials. 

When possible, we suggest trying to avoid plastic packaging labelled with codes 3 (PVC) or 7 (which includes polycarbonate).

Better still, try to avoid all plastic packaging as much as possible for the health of our environment, or try to choose biodegradable or compostable plastics.

Regulations Here vs Overseas

BPA is declared a "toxic substance" at law in Canada and banned in certain products in the EU such as baby bottles, amongst other restrictions. In Australia and New Zealand however, BPA is only subject to a voluntary phase-out by manufacturers.

Similarly, several phthalates (including DEHP) have been banned in the EU and US in toys and other children's products at levels greater than 0.1%, while the Australian limit is ten times higher at 1%.

Australia's relatively loose regulations are cause for consumers to be extra vigilant.

What We're Doing at Go! Kidz

We're committed to avoiding adding to the environmental and health impacts of plastic waste. That's why our:

  • Meal trays are compostable
  • Tray-film and product labels are recyclable
  • Thermal liners, made from compressed sheep's belly wool, are fully compostable and have a biodegradable outer
  • Frozen gel packs contain a non-toxic gel that can be washed down the sink and have a recyclable outer
  • Transportation boxes are recycled cardboard
  • Packaging tape is compostable paper.

We've ensured that all of our packaging is either compostable, recyclable or biodegradable, and contains nothing toxic.