Who doesn’t use plastic wrap, really? Especially the ones who need them like tattoo parlors, big restaurants, or bakery shops? This product is always going to be in someone’s house (given that they don’t live an eco-friendly lifestyle).
Did you know that this clingy product was originally a mistake of chemistry? This transparent film was initially residue clinging stubbornly to the bottom of a beaker in a 1940s laboratory. The military originally used it to line boots and planes but today everybody uses it and you can find it in a lot of shops and grocery shops in a lot of brands.
This product is undoubtedly very popular everywhere. One industry research group found that, in the past six months, nearly 80 million Americans had used at least one roll of plastic wrap, but more than five million Americans had gone through more than 10 million boxes. Commercial uses in supermarkets and shipping account for the additional three million tons of plastic wrap companies expect to make in 2019. And that’s only in the US.
Despite its convenience properties and benefits to humans, plastic wrap contributes to the larger plastic pollution crisis. It’s difficult to recycle, since it’s used for a lot of things and if you crumple it, it becomes so small, and it’s made from potentially harmful chemicals, especially as they break down in the environment.
Leah Bendell, a marine ecotoxicologist from Simon Fraser University, said, “If you look back to the 1950s when we didn’t have as effective food storage like we do now, you can see why it was so popular,”
“We didn’t have plastic 70 years ago, and then in the post-war boom, you had chemists who were going to provide us with this brave new world. Pesticides, herbicides, and plastics were a big part of that,” she continued.
Thin plastic that sticks
Ralph Wiley was the one who discovered a material called polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) in the physicals lab at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan. He was told to create a new product out of hydrocarbon and chlorine, two by-products of manufacturing the dry-cleaning agent perchloroethylene.
This new material was very compact and water resistant that it couldn’t be washed clean from its distillation flask. Other than that, they’re almost impenetrable by oxygen and water molecules. Those properties made the material attractive in war efforts and in American kitchens.
In the 1960s, an Australian company GLAD created their own version of plastic wrap from polyethylene (PE). It was a success, albeit less clingy. Then, manufacturers switch to PE after consumers grew concerned about the health impacts of wrapping their food in a plastic made with chloride. Today, plastic wraps in this world are made of PVDC, PVC, and polyethylene.
Is it safe?
PVC and PVDC contain chloride compositions in each molecule but they’re slightly different. A product from a brand called Saran Wrap has 13% vinyl chloride in their products. Nonetheless, both materials have toxic additives.
However, The Food and Drug Administration regulates both, permitting less than a fraction of one percent of PVC and PVDC food wrap from migrating into food. They said that at that exposure level, it’s highly unlikely someone could be poisoned by their plastic wrap.
Rolf Halden, an environmental scientist at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, said, “If you have a dinner plate made out of PVC, is that posing a risk? Probably not. But if we surround ourselves with PVC and phthalates, they can leach or ooze out of the products. That creates an unwanted exposure.”
Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineer at Michigan State University, said that manufacturers usually add plasticizers to make plastics softer, more flexible, and more transparent, especially for food packaging. One common class of plasticizers included is called DEHA, or diethylhexyl adipate, it doesn’t contain carcinogens like other plasticizers, but its effects on human health are unclear.
Now, this product is difficult to recycle without specialized equipment they clog machines. Even if it is recycled, it’ll be more expensive than using new, virgin, materials. You know how chemically unsafe the materials for this product are, so when the plastics end up in landfills or incinerators, both PVC and PVDC can release a highly toxic chemical called dioxin.
And once it gets into marine environments, plastic wrap contributes to a larger plastic pollution crisis and worse. Scientists said that PVC and PVDC do great jobs of picking up bacteria and metals. Fish and other marine animals often mistake them for food and you know how dangerous it would be for them.
Moving to alternatives?
The very first thing that we think of to reduce any more damage this product might do to our environment is completely ditching them. However, a lot of manufacturers argued that it’s time to update and upgrade infrastructure.
Scott Defife, the vice president of government affairs at the Plastics Industry Association, said plastic films could be easily recycled if our infrastructure for collecting waste wasn’t “lacking.” He said, “We want the federal government to make investments. They should think of it as a critical public utility like roads and bridges.”
The Plastics Industry Association also argued that plastic wrap as an effective way to reduce food waste by keeping food fresh.
I don’t know about you, but I still think we should still look for alternatives so that these plastic wraps won’t damage marine environment any further. If you’re looking for good alternatives, there are plenty on the internet.
Admittedly, some reusable cling wraps are, to be blunt, crap. I have the silicone ones and unless I put it on the right product with the right width and materials, it won’t do the job at all. Still looking for the good ones so if you’ve got any recommendations, please leave your comments.
If you don’t have the reusable ones, wax paper usually does the trick. This paper was, in fact, frequently used in the decades before plastic wrap was stocked on supermarket shelves, and there are the reusable ones you can buy lately.
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Steve Reble, co-owner of a start-up called Etee, said he got inspired by the ancient Egyptian wraps on mummies when he created his own version of a reusable food wrap by coating a thin strip of cotton in a waxy barrier.
His business has effectively captured a demographic of consumers searching for alternatives to single-use plastics. Moreover, Etee food wraps have been able to eliminate more than 100 million square feet of plastic wrap in the past two years.
Katie Flagg, a representative of a similar company called Bee’s Wrap, said that the company grew by 87% last year. She said, “We’re becoming much more savvy about how we interact with our resources.”
Nielsen, a consumer research group estimated that US consumers will spend $150 billion on a wide variety of sustainable products by 2021. Let’s hope that other countries would follow suit so that our environment would be a better place.