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A pint of plastic – should I be worried?

2 August 2017 • 2 min reading time

Now that plastic waste is turning up in flora and fauna in all manner of places all over the world, research into the effects on our health of all that plastic in our food is urgently needed.

There is plastic in our beer. That is what Gerd and Elisabeth Liebezeit of German company MarChemConsult discovered during their research into 24 German beer brands. And even the honey on our sandwiches may contain plastic, according to research carried out on behalf of the Keuringsdienst van Waarde television programme in 2014. “So what?” you may ask. There are no doubt many other things in our food that we can’t be sure about: additives, salt, refined and natural sugars, saturated and unsaturated fatty acids – the list goes on and on.

280 million tonnes of plastic

We currently assume that it is dangerous, or at least unhealthy, that our food contains micro (small) and nano (very small) pieces of plastic. I am inclined to believe that. Plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene or polyethylene terephthalate – better known as PET – are, after all, still made from fossil crude oil, and usually contain chemical additives as well. Also, plastics are virtually non-degradable. Worldwide, 280 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, and this level is predicted to rise. Various measures have been taken to prevent plastic litter, but it’s a losing battle. A lot of plastic is ending up in the environment, which ultimately finds its way into our glasses and onto our dinner plates.

“Various measures have been taken to prevent plastic litter, but it’s a losing battle”

Recognizing gaps in knowledge

But what do I really know about the effect on our health of all those bits of plastic in my food? There are too many gaps in our knowledge for it to be possible to assess accurately the risks that people are exposed to. This is due to the complexity of the problem – the different types of plastic, the variation in additives, and the fact that other substances actually attach themselves to plastics. The various ways in which the particles enter our bodies and the lack of clarity about what happens to them once they are in our bodies also make it a complicated matter. Fortunately, there is increasing recognition of the gaps in our knowledge; the Health Council of the Netherlands has asked the Dutch government to facilitate more scientific research.

“There are too many gaps in our knowledge for it to be possible to assess accurately the risks that people are exposed to”

Researching the effects of plastics on our health

TNO and two other research institutes would therefore like to join forces in order to investigate the effects of plastics on the health of the human body. I very much welcome the fact that this is finally going to be researched thoroughly, and that this will be done by a consortium of international research institutes. Because through the combined knowledge produced by these institutes, we can exert more pressure to have the necessary solutions – because they are out there! – implemented, so that plastics no longer find their way to the environment and therefore onto our dinner tables.

Author

Willemijn van der Werf, Circular Economy Business Developer at TNO.

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