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Why excessive use of plastic food containers or packaging is harmful to humans

Plastic particles detected in human body

by damith
September 19, 2023 1:19 am 0 comment
HDPE food carrying bags

Plastics are synthetic polymer compound mostly made from petrochemical sources. Certain harmful chemicals like phthalates and Bisphinol are added to increase certain performances like hardens and flexibility of plastic products. When plastic containers are subjected to heat or get damaged or cracked there is a potential of leaching these toxic chemicals into the surface. Therefore, it should be concerned when using plastic containers and polythene as food wrappers, food storage boxes, utensils in food preparation, and serving dishes and cups. There is a chance of direct indigestion of Phthalates, Bisphinol A and other chemicals directly through food and water. Apart from that, when plastic is subjected to heat, UV, abrasion and other chemical reactions, plastic releases plastic fakes less than 5 mm in size which can be indigested to humans through food and water.

Microplastic indigestion by human from plastic food containers / food wrappings

Melamine food containers

Melamine food containers

According to recent research findings, it has been found out that single use food packaging including plastic lunch boxes, plastic plates and cups will release micro plastics into food whether the food is hot or cold. Heat food would be able to release more particles relative to cold food and also this greatly happens within the first hour of wrapping.Especially single use food containers made out of polystyrene release more microplastics due to its fibrous nature. Not only single use plastic food containers but also reusable melamine plastic containers even release microplastics into food. It is proven that the more the washing cycles of the bowl releases more micro plastics relative to the first washing doughting reusability of certain plastic food containers. Also, cardboard cups, plates and lunch boxes with a polymer lining also release micro plastics into food. Not only that, HDPE polythene bags, where we are served our snacks in HDPE carrying bags also release microplastics into food no matter the food is hot or cold. Therefore, plastic food containers can be identified as a direct source of microplastic in our human body.

Does microplastic indigestion harmful to human body?

It is obvious that microplastic is neither part of the human body or natural substance. Once microplastic enter into human body these tiny foreign particles less than 5mm in size would be travelled all over the body through bloodcirculation system and be lodged in organs and tissues. Microplastics have been detected in breast tissues, fetus and even in breast milk. Studies carried out with human blood samples and infant/adult feces samples show the presence of microplastics. Though the cause and effect of microplastics on human health is in the experimental stage, there have been research findings carried out with animals to show the link between presence of microplastics and the disruption of gut microbes, inflammation, lower sperm quality, lower male hormones, negative effects of learning and memory.

Further exacerbating the problem, microplastic particles act like magnets for certain environmental pollutants and be able to attract and harbor other toxic substances like pesticide, weedicides, antibiotics henceindigestion through water, food and air resulting joint toxicity in humans.

Dire consequences of terrestrial and marine plastic pollution along with industrial toxics will have irreversible greater tangible impacts on human life.

Context of Plastic Waste Management in Sri Lanka

Local Authorities (LAs) are given power in managing solid waste including plastic waste in respective areas. However, plastic waste management in the country is inefficient due to challenges faced by LA s in terms of financial, technical, and human resources. In Sri Lanka, recycling of plastics is mainly carried out in-house by the production sector. Though a few largescale recyclers exist there is no proper established plastic waste collection system exist. Plastic waste collection by the private sector is mainly carried out by the informal sector and they collect plastic waste from homes, streets, commercial and industrial establishments and from the final disposal sites. Out of the plastic waste we generate as a nation, only 32% is collected for proper waste management. Even from this amount a few percentage is mechanically recycled and the rest is dumped in to half sanitary landfills (properly designed landfills) or dumping yards located in the open environment. The rest of the 68% is directly released into the environment. From that percentage almost half is open burnt which is prohibited and extremely harmful as plastic burning will release carbufurans which is highly carcinogenic. Remainder is leaking to the environment and escape into oceans through water bodies.

Out of the 7 plastic types, we see the number ranging from 1-7 printed or embedded in plastic products. That number will give an idea of the type of plastic used in the product. In Sri Lanka, we have technical feasibility in recycling PET (No 1), HDPE (No 2), LDPE (No 4) and PP (No 5). Primarily, Sri Lanka is currently recycle No 1 (PET) plastic and produce brooms etc. There is no complete database of collectors or recyclers in Sri Lanka, and the only database is the recyclers and E-waste handlers registered with the Central Environmental Authority. In reality, however, more private sector and established recyclers exist in Colombo than the registered. We must understand the urgency of establishing the plastic recycling as a profitable business and necessary actions are needed with the involvement of investors, private sector entities, industries, responsible state agencies and line ministries. Proper plastic waste channeling system should be in place at our earliest.

National policy, Acts and regulations exist in plastic management

Even though, there is no committed national policy in plastic waste management, solid waste management policy and sustainable consumption and production policy in the country provide guidance and provisions in plastic waste management.

Accordingly, there are certain laws and regulations imposed under different Executive Presidents in combatting plastic pollution. The manufacture, the sale, offer for sale, offer free of charge, exhibition or use of polythene or any polythene product of twenty (20) microns or below in thickness for in country use provided that polythene or any polythene product of twenty (20) microns or below in thickness may be permitted to be used with the prior written approval of the Authority for specific scheduled purposes.

Gazette Notification No. 2034/36 under the National Environmental Act prohibiting the burning of plastic waste or other flammable materials outdoors. Any person who fails to comply with the regulations above shall be liable to an offence and punishable.

It is prohibited to manufacture of food wrappers (lunch sheets) from polythene (HDPE, LDPE, PP) as a raw material for in country use or sale, offer for sale, offer free of charge, exhibition or use of food wrappers manufactured from polythene as a raw material within the country.

Further, it is also prohibited manufacture of any bags (generally referred to as a grocery bag or a silisili bag) with or without handles of high density polyethylene as a raw material for in country use or sale, offer for sale, offer free of charge, exhibition or use of any bag manufactured from high density polyethylene as a raw material within the country.

It is prohibited to use of all forms of polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene products or polypropylene products as decoration in political, social, religious, national, cultural or any other event or occasion.

The manufacture of food containers (lunch boxes), plates, cups and spoons from expanded polystyrene for in country use or sale, offer for sale, offer free of charge, exhibition or use of food containers, plates, cups and spoons manufactured from expanded polystyrene within the country is prohibited.

In 2021 it was prohibited the use of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) material for packing agrochemicals used for any process, trade or industry, sachets having less than or equal to a net volume of 20ml/net weight of 20g (except for packing food and medicines), inflatable toys (except balloons, balls, water floating/pool toys and water sports gear), cotton buds with plastic stems (except plastic cotton buds used for medical/ clinical treatment).

Sri Lanka will ban the domestic manufacture and sale of single-use plastics including Single use plastic straws, stirring utensils, spoons, yoghurt spoons, (excluding yogurt cups), forks, knives, plastic flower garlands, plastic string hopper trays with effective from October 1.

What is our responsibility?

The modern or postmodern man live in the contemporary society is looking for fast facilitated lifestyle in achieving their highly ambitious targets, usually with a significant environmental as well as health costs. Waste crisis including plastic waste has become one of the major socio-environmental issues face by the country. It is important for all of us to understand the impacts of excessive and unwise use of plastics on human health, apart from detrimental environmental impacts of plastic wastes. It is our duty to be abound with the regulations imposed in the country and support executing regulations in order to control excessive consumption of plastic and improper disposal of plastic wastes. Avoid littering and handling over plastic waste to formal/informal collectors are two good practices of a responsible citizen.

Also, it is highly encouraged to switch away from plastics to safer and environmental friendlier alternatives where possible.

We all understand the need of placing proper systems in place and at the same time we must also better understand the importance of changing individual’s attitudes and behavior in executing the system.

(Rangika Bandara is a professor at Department of Zoology and Environmental Management, University of Kelaniya. She is Senior Academic Consultant of Center for Environmental Studies and Sustainable Development, Open University of Sri Lanka.)

Professor Rangika Bandara

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