Food, Plastic, and You: The World Has Been Conquered by Plastic

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

As a child, I brought vegetables home from the garden in a wheelbarrow. When we stopped to pick up Bill Eason’s corn on Oxford Road, it would be placed by the Bakers dozen in the back of the family station wagon and roll from side to side until we got home. The corn was never damaged as it was protected naturally by the husk. I remember open bins of fruits and vegetables were center stage at our local grocery store and at a neighborhood co-op my mother belonged to in the 70s. Neither store nor co-op prepackaged their fruits and veggies in plastic. Once every other week she went to pick up her co-op share in a cardboard box. The vegetables and fruits were placed together in the box all happily touching each other and all made it home in good shape. She used the same box week after week.

My, how things have changed. Over the years, plastic has crept insidiously into our lives item by item, aisle by aisle, package by package until we cannot get through the day without seeing, using or touching plastic. What happened along the way? Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel, gives the reader a history of how the world has been conquered by plastic. It is worth a read, and while I cannot cover the full history in this column, I will preface that it all started with combs and billiard balls.

Billiard balls used to be made of ivory and combs used to be made of tortoise shells, and both were limited resources heading toward extinction. In an effort to find a new material for these items, a celluloid material was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt. While it wasn’t a good substitute for billiard balls, it was an ideal material for making combs. Celluloid would find many uses, including photographic film. Fast forward to World War II, when new plastic polymers had evolved and machines that made plastic products got quicker and more efficient. For example, to conserve rubber, U.S. servicemen were issued plastic combs in their hygiene kits. When World War II ended, plastics hit the consumer market to be scooped up by Americans needing affordable goods for their families. Plastics were poised to permeate every crevice of the market, and they have.

Consider using reusable cotton bags at the grocery store and farmers’ market for fresh produce purchases.

Plastics by the numbers, according to National Geographic:

  • Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.
  • Production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. Production is expected to double by 2050.
  • Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world.
  • Plastics often contain additives making them stronger, more flexible, and durable. But many of these additives can extend the life of products if they become litter, with some estimates ranging to at least 400 years to break down.

While plastics are convenient and affordable, they are buggers to get rid of. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported in 2018 that only 8.7% of plastic is recycled. That is, once plastic is here, it is most likely to stay. It doesn’t break down easily, and the bits that do break down end up in our food as microplastics. A Scientific American article entitled “What to do about plastic pollution?” is premised in this way: “Bans on bags will not solve a global recycling failure.” Instead, the editors maintain that “We must do a better job of staunching the flood. Doing that means tackling two broad goals: considerably reducing the amount of plastic we produce and improving the recycling of and reuse of what we do make.” So while banning plastic bags is a great start, it’s not nearly enough. Not only do we need innovation, but action; action is key, and Germany and France are leading the way.

Germany has a recycling scheme that has cut down on littering tremendously. Machines called deposit collectors return a deposit you pay up front with the retailer when you purchase glass, plastic, or aluminum cans. Recycling rates for aluminum cans are around 99%, only 1 to 3% of non-reusable bottles are not returned. So, with this measurement, you see extreme success. However, for those who do not return the bottles the manufacturer does not have to pay back the deposit, thus increasing their profits. While the system is flawed, it is better than anything we have in the United States.

France has a new law banning plastic packaging on most fruit and vegetables. It went into effect on January 1, 2022. President Emmanuel Macron called the ban “a real revolution” and said it showed the country’s commitment to phase out single use plastics by 2040. More than a third of fruit and vegetable products in France are thought to be sold in plastic wrapping, and government officials believe that the ban could prevent a billion items of single use plastics being used every year. From 2021, the country banned plastic straws, cups and cutlery, as well as polystyrene takeaway boxes. And later in 2022 public spaces will be forced to provide water fountains to reduce the use of plastic bottles, publications will have to be shipped without plastic wrapping, and fast-food restaurants will no longer be able offer free plastic toys.”

Spain will follow with a similar ban in 2023. Scotland will ban many single use plastics beginning in June 2022. Every country that moves toward a circular economy, an economy that reduces material use, redesigns materials to be less resource intensive, and recaptures “waste” as a resource to manufacture new materials and puts us ever closer to repairing the planet.

Locally, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory is launching a new study to track microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The study is specifically focused on what kinds of microplastics are in the Choptank watershed and how they move through coastal systems and marshy wetlands.

By the time you read this, New Year’s will seem like a long time ago. Maybe your resolutions are going well, or maybe not. Maybe you didn’t make any at all. I learned long ago not to make broad sweeping proclamations heading into a new year. I keep my resolutions small and obtainable. I have often wondered why, just because the calendar is changing from one year to the next, we need to work on ourselves when we should be working on ourselves all year long. With plastic waste all around us every day, now is the time to think about our relationship with plastic.

Here are a few small and obtainable suggestions for using less plastic:

  • Invest in a reusable water bottle (maybe not plastic) and use it every day.
  • When possible, choose items and brands that use less or no plastic in their packaging. For example, bar soap wrapped in paper versus body wash in a plastic bottle. Powdered detergent in a cardboard box versus plastic bottle. Orange juice in a cardboard container versus plastic bottle.
  • Keep a real knife fork and spoon handy, so you don’t need to use plastic utensils when getting takeout.
  • Buy your food from local sources and farmers’ markets that tend to use less plastic packaging.
  • Grow some of your own food – you don’t need plastic to carry it from your yard to your kitchen. Even a small garden or container tomatoes and herbs can make a difference. Everything you grow at home is that much less you need to buy that might be wrapped in plastic.
  • Look for alternatives. For example, wicker laundry hamper or plastic? Wooden picture frame or plastic?
  • Consider reusable cotton produce bags.

Contemplate this: if you stop buying it, they will stop making it. Tell your friends.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.


Plastic: “A Toxic Love Story,” by Susan Frienkel

France ban on single use packaging begins.

Scotland to ban most single use plastic from 2022

“What to Do about Plastic Pollution. Bans on bags will not solve a global recycling failure.”

by the Editors of Scientific American. June 2019.

Additional Readings

Plastic in our Food

Microplastics in Food

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