Hidden Plastic that You Didn‘t Know Existed – Food Edition

When it comes to avoiding plastic while traveling, I bet most of you can name a couple plastic items that are better to avoid. Plastic straws, plastic cutlery and plastic cups are just a couple examples that often come to mind. While it is hard enough to avoid those products obviously made from plastic, it becomes even harder when you don’t even know that the product contains plastic at all! Hidden plastics are all around us and especially present in the food industry.

Let me give you an example. Did you know tea bags contain plastic? Most of us compost the tea bags after dumping them in hot water. The majority of tea bags will never fully biodegrade, however. To my surprise, there are quite a few products with hidden plastic in them. So how do you fight those hidden evils? By becoming aware that they exist! If you know which products contain hidden plastic, you can actively avoid them or demand alternatives from your favorite stores or companies. To help you in that quest, this is a list of six food-related products that commonly contain plastic. Most of us don’t even know there was plastic in there, so be prepared to be surprised!

1 – Teabags

There are two places for hidden plastic in teabags. One of them is the bag itself. Adding plastic to the teabag helps it keep shape in boiling hot water. Yet, that plastic does not only contaminate our composts with plastic. It also releases microplastics into the cup when adding hot water. 11.6 billion pieces of microplastics to be precise when the water is heated to 95°C (203°F), according to New Scientist. Quite a lot of things you wouldn’t want to have in your body!

The second plastic hidden in teabags is used for sealing the bags. Often, polypropylene is used to seal the teabags which is not recyclable when it’s part of a teabag. During this process of heat sealing the bag, a thin film of polypropylene is applied on the bag to stick the sides together.

Apart from those non-separable parts of the teabag, the packaging is often also wrapped in plastic. But at least that part can be ripped off and recycled.

How to Do Better

If you have an extra minute and a tea infuser, avoiding plastic while sipping on a cup of tea is easily doable. Just opt for loose leaf tea. Experts say, using loose tea is usually higher quality tea with more flavor anyways. When eating out or traveling, choosing the loose alternative may be a bit more time-consuming. You might have to ask the barista what kind of tea they serve. But this could also mean you have a chance to build a better connection with locals. Other countries might only offer loose leaf tea anyways as it’s cheaper and part of their culture. Traveling through Central Asia, the amount of green and black tea we consumed was immense. To be honest, I kinda came back addicted to their tea, hoping to find similar loose tea in my home town.

2 – Chewing Gum

Chewing gums are not a recent invention. Apparently, thousands of years ago, humans have already used gum to keep their mouths busy. They probably used more natural ingredients derived from plants, grasses or resins. Whereas nowadays, chewing gums also contain plastic!The gum is actually not digestible or water-insoluble. No matter how long you keep chewing it, it won’t break down. Its ‘gum base’ is actually a sort of synthetic rubber which is also used to make cars.

If you consider the amount of gums sticking to sidewalks, park benches or bus seats, it’s clear they don’t break down. They are a persistent mark in our environment and may be confusing to animals who try to eat them.

How to Do Better

Recently, companies have started to make gum from more natural ingredients. This natural base imitates the old practice of using chicle, or tree sap, to get the desirable chewiness. The new material is biodegradable, plastic and chemical-free. Most producers simply state ‘gum base’ as the main ingredient though, making it hard to figure out what exactly the gums are made of. To stay clear of plastic, opt for one of the brands who advertise openly for their plastic-free gum.

3 – Sea Salt

While plastic is intentionally added to teabags and chewing gums, companies producing sea salt can’t be blamed for that. Instead, all the microplastics in our waterways and oceans are actually responsible for contaminating sea salt – It has come full cycle. Whereas many people have already heard of microplastic contamination in fish and other seafood, a link between microplastics in salt could previously not be found. Recently, however, researchers have closed that gap and proved that microplastics in commercial sea salts is caused by plastic pollution in lakes and rivers.

How to Do Better

If you want to reduce your plastic intake from sea salt, make sure your sea salt is not produced in Asia. Researchers found brands from Asia to be particularly high in microplastics. This is most likely due to the fact that plastic pollution is particularly pervasive over there. Another measure would be to reduce your salt intake in general. While many food producers add salt to their products to conserve and add taste, most of us consume too much salt anyways.

To take a broader perspective, microplastics in sea salt are exactly one of the reasons why we need to get our plastic problem under control. If we continue reducing our plastic addiction, especially when it comes to single-use items, we can potentially stop microplastic from contaminating our food as well.

4 – Paper/Cardboard Food and Drink Packaging

While some of the food containers are obviously made from plastic, others are a bit more sneaky. Cardboard food boxes may look like the green alternative. Yet, somehow even they need to stop the contents from seeping through the box. Often, a thin plastic coating is applied to paper and cardboard packaging in order to keep your hands clean. Unfortunately, the coating cannot be separated from the rest of the paper, meaning the entire thing is unable to be recycled. And here we thought we were opting for the green alternative!

How to Do Better

So how do you avoid those plastics without compromising your cravings for that delicious yumminess? If you are super organized and know beforehand that you might want to grab some food, simply bring your own food containers. There are several containers made from glass, metal or even foldable ones from food grade silicone so you don’t have to take a full-blown backpack everywhere you go.

Other options would be to line up for companies using eco-friendly materials. Some companies make compostable takeaway boxes from sugarcane or other plant-based material to make their containers compostable.  

5 – Disposable Cups

If you haven’t lived on the moon for the last couple years, you’ll probably know this already. But just in case you were busy saving the world in a different way, takeaway coffee cups also contain plastic. Even though they look like they are made from paper, they actually have a thin layer of plastic to stop the hot liquid from seeping through the cup.

If you think just throwing the coffee cup in the paper recycling bin saves the problem, you may actually be making it worse. The waterproof lining of many cups means it’s either expensive to recycle or not recyclable at all. Most cups are thus sent to a landfill, incinerated or exported.

Throwing a paper coffee cup in the recycling bin may even contaminate a load of normally recyclable paper, sending the entire load to a landfill instead. What’s more, sometimes they are escaping into our rivers, parks and marine system posing a direct threat to our ecosystems.

How to Do Better

There are many options to reduce the amount of plastic produced through our coffee addiction. First of all, ditch the lid. While this is normally made entirely of plastic and thus easier to recycle, it’s also often not necessary. It lasts only a few minutes in your hand, but forever in a landfill.

The better option, however, is to bring your own reusable cup. Even using a plastic coffee cup several times may be better than going for the disposable option. If you are using it for long enough, it can save greenhouse gas emissions, water and waste ending up in a landfill. And if you are opting for a glass, ceramic or bamboo cup, you can reduce your plastic even more.

You are finding it annoying to take your reusable cup with you all the time just in case you might want a coffee? Don’t worry, there is another option. Just take a seat. Enjoying your coffee while sitting down may even recharge your energy levels more than rushing from one place to the next with your coffee in hand.

6 – Drink Cans

On the quest to avoiding plastic, people sometimes grab aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles, thinking they are fully made from metal. Well, turns out, even aluminum cans can’t escape plastic!

The biggest enemy here is actually what’s inside the can. Apparently, a can of Coke would corrode in a matter of days if the can would just be made from metal. To prevent corrosion, can producers opt for a plastic resin that lines the inside of the can. Unfortunately, 80% of that resin, which is usually epoxy, is made out of BPA. This material has become known for a number of negative health implications including hormone disruption. Many producers of plastic bottles or containers have therefore tried to ban BPA from their production. Yet, it is still prevalent in all of the drink cans.  

How to Do Better

Sadly, most soda producers only give you a choice between plastic bottles or aluminum cans. So if you want to drink you favorite brand of coke, avoiding plastic seems quite impossible. Luckily, there are still brands which put their drinks in glass bottles. If you don’t have the option of glass, it may be better to choose the bigger bottle size than purchasing a lot of smaller bottles. Buying in bulk saves at least some of the resources. If you feel like you can do without soda drinks entirely, the best option would be to just take your reusable water bottle with you and use water to quench your thirst. Check out my review of my favorite water bottles here.

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