With the infinitely spiraling e-commerce economy, a proliferation of disposable consumer goods, including disposable facial towels and underwear, has emerged, deeply rooting the “one-time-use” culture in the mindset of consumers. The term “disposable” no longer signifies a temporary fix but has become a daily norm for the majority.
Many people trust that disposable food packaging, being brand new and clean, can protect food from external contaminants, not only preserving flavor but also avoiding potential secondary contamination that may arise from inadequate cleaning and sanitizing procedures in some eateries. However, does disposable food packaging truly epitomize cleanliness and hygiene?
While disposable packaging materials undoubtedly have advantages in terms of convenience and sealing in food, the complex stages of their production, processing, utilization, and disposal bring significant environmental impacts and hidden health risks. Thus, it is imperative to strip away the facade of convenience offered by disposable packaging to thoroughly assess its visible and invisible effects on our lives and the environment at large, aiding individuals to make more informed choices regarding food packaging.
The main health threats posed by disposable food packaging during its production and use stem from three aspects: material composition, additives, and inks and coatings used in packaging.
Material Composition: Most disposable food packaging is made of plastics like polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE), which typically do not pose significant harm to human health at low concentrations. However, prolonged or high-concentration exposure may affect the respiratory tract.
Additives: Plasticizers are often added to disposable food packaging to alter its structure. When these packages are used to heat food in microwaves, plasticizers may leach into the food, potentially disrupting the human endocrine system. Some manufacturers use fluorescent whitening agents to enhance the appearance of disposable plastic containers; these agents contain chemical components that are difficult for the body to decompose, thus potentially burdening the liver. For paper-based disposable packaging, bleach and other chemical agents are sometimes employed in the production process, and residues may impact the quality and safety of the food.
Inks and Coatings: The inks used on disposable food packaging may contain harmful substances such as lead, chromium, and volatile organic compounds, posing potential health risks. Additionally, most disposable food packaging contains internal coatings designed to endure heat and moisture. These coatings may release substances such as perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), which, once absorbed by the human body, bind to serum proteins and accumulate in various organs such as the liver, kidneys, and testicles, thereby disrupting endocrine function. According to a 2020 study published in Modern Food Science and Technology, titled “Study on Dietary Exposure of Perfluorooctanoic Acid and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate from Disposable Paper Cups,” more than 60% of disposable paper cups contain PFAS. Furthermore, an assessment report by Consumer Reports tested over 100 food packaging products from American restaurants and grocery chains, finding PFAS substances in items ranging from bags for fries to burger wrappers, fiber salad bowls, and paper plates.
After mass production, disposable food packaging must be properly transported and stored. However, improper handling can lead to a multitude of issues.
During transportation: compression, tearing, or damage – are common, leading to holes or ruptures on the packaging surface, allowing microorganisms, dust, dirt, and bacteria from the outside environment to infiltrate. This contamination can affect the functionality of the packaging and compromise the hygiene of the food within.
Mold and filth: Disposable paper-based food packaging stored in damp or poorly ventilated environments is prone to mold and dirt invasion. Mold and bacteria can proliferate under such conditions. If not promptly addressed, they may spread inside the packaging, creating potential food safety hazards.
Aging and degradation: Long-term storage can see disposable food packaging materials become old and frail, diminishing their preserving and sealing abilities, and making them more susceptible to external environmental factors, thus failing to effectively insulate the food.
Once disposable food packaging has been used, it is primarily destined for burial or incineration, with a portion escaping into the natural environment.
· Studies estimate that a third of discarded plastics ultimately enter soils or freshwater systems. These plastics degrade exceptionally slowly, requiring decades or more to break down. In the process, they can disintegrate into microplastics that may afflict the growth of certain crops and soil organisms such as earthworms. Accumulation of such particles through the food chain poses a latent threat to ecosystems and human health. Meanwhile, additives from packaging materials (plasticizers, dyes, inks on labels) can quickly “escape,” potentially infiltrating the soil and groundwater. Additionally, the incineration stage of disposable food packaging can release harmful gases, such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls, which are potential dangers to human health. Furthermore, disposable food packaging entering landfills can leak harmful substances throughout decomposition, leading to irreversible soil and groundwater contamination. PFAS substances, as previously mentioned, can also find their way into the atmosphere, water bodies, or soil through landfilling, incineration, or composting, eventually accruing in human bodies after adherence to crops or ingestion by animals. Plastic waste entering water bodies can be transported long distances with currents and eventually flow into oceans, causing severe pollution to marine ecosystems.
In the realm of food packaging, seeking a balance between convenience, hygiene, and sustainability has never been more crucial. If we continue to depend on the widespread use of disposable food packaging for convenience, achieving the goal of a sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyle will prove challenging.
Disposable food packaging and cutlery, which are not designed for “reusability,” may also harbor sanitation risks. In contrast, the reusable model, which involves containers tailored for systematic reuse, presents a hygienic and sustainable choice. Such containers boast attributes such as healthiness, environmental friendliness, durability, ease of cleaning, and maintainability, thus playing a critical role in alleviating the sanitation risks associated with disposable food packaging. Moreover, reusable packaging, designed for multiple uses, is produced with greater emphasis on quality control and standardization to meet hygiene standards even after repeated use.
Modern technology offers pathways to optimize the reusability of packaging materials. System management and big data analysis can effectively track the distribution of reusable containers and computationally optimize their cleaning and maintenance routines. Central sterilization systems ensure that cleaning processes meet the highest sanitary standards while minimizing the ecological footprint associated with their production and disposal.
Disposable food packaging is not as intrinsically safe as we might take for granted. Instead, it harbors numerous environmental and sanitary hazards from production to disposal. When facing the sanitary challenges of disposable packaging, transformative solutions can be found in simple, yet effective reusable models. Reusable packaging, necessitating multiple uses, is often made from more durable materials that aid in preventing bacterial and pathogen proliferation. Moreover, reusable systems leveraging modern IoT technology can track and source with greater efficiency, ultimately ensuring a cleaner and more secure option.
As consumers, we can drive solutions to address the sanitary risks of disposable packaging by reducing our reliance on one-time-use products and consciously prioritizing reusable alternatives, thus decreasing the demand for disposable options. Giving reusable models a chance also represents an opportunity to remedy the hazards associated with disposable food packaging, embracing a more sustainable and secure future.