Plastic People

Photo credit: Jenna Spevack
With the recent roll bag vote and the expanded TerraCycle collections happening at the Coop, plastic has had increased visibility among Coop members.  However, there’s one area where plastic chemicals are ubiquitously present yet mostly unseen within the walls of 782 Union. Where? Actually inside our food and then ultimately in our bodies. 

To understand how plastic chemicals end up food and then in people, a basic lesson in polymer chemistry is needed.  Simplified, plastics are made up of long chains of plasticizer chemicals (a monomer is a plastic compound, which when strung together make up polymers that form the building blocks of plastic.)  Plastics of course have a wide variety of uses.  From hard, colored plastic to flexible, transparent cling film and other types of food packaging, plastics have brought a certain ease to many us living a modern life.

Unfortunately popular plastic chemicals share two characteristics that’s a problem for us.  They are able to interact with the body’s hormonal systems (it is increasingly observed how detrimental they can be for human health) and secondly they don’t stay put.  Plastic chemicals need very little to start migrating out into the wider environments they find themselves in.  Promiscuous polymers are not what we tend to think about when we think about plastic, but there’s excellent data to show this migration clearly.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has observed the plasticizer BPA or Bisphenol-A in the urine of 93% of American’s tested and phthalates (the class of plastic chemicals used to make PVC) have been found in the majority of children tested.  This is very concerning as phthalates are linked to a host of conditions affecting kids, including birth defects, asthma and allergies.

The public would be surprised to hear that food is major source of plasticizers like phthalates.  After all no one intentionally eats plastic but dietary source of plastic chemicals can be oxymoronic to say the least, both in your face and hidden in plain sight.  The plastic your food has been produced with and is wrapped and packaged in is the key source of this dietary exposure.

A 2013 New York study showed phthalates showing up in food bought in everyday supermarkets.  The plasticizers were found in everything from turkey bacon, fresh salmon steaks, vegetable soup to even cake mix and bread. These food items were bought straight off the shelves in randomly selected supermarkets.  You can see the entire list of food products hereand these chemicals will be found in both organic and conventional products.


So what’s a Park Slope Food Coop member to do? 

Well there are things that we can start doing right now:  
  • Reducing the amount of food bought in plastic packaging and tin cans (cans are lined with a plastic film that is for the most part made from BPA and BPA alternatives such as BPS and BPF) is a start.  Try bulk buying those garbanzo beans rather than getting tins, or using fresh ingredients to make foods like soups is a great way to avoid the cans.
  • Buying in season and freezing.  Frozen peaches still come in soft plastic bags but peach season means an abundance of fruit at great prices that can easily be frozen in glass containers.
  • Using more cloth reusable bags for bulk and less plastic roll bags.  These bags easily find their way into waterways, soil and other areas of our environment. Chemicals can leach from these bags as the plastic starts disintegrating and into it’s surroundings.
  • If you have to use roll bags, returning them in our extended TerraCycle collections will keep them out of general environmental circulation and recycling provides the building blocks for other plastic materials.  Soft plastics are NOT covered by NYC recycling initiatives, so TerraCycle is one of the few ways to keep these plastics out of landfills etc.
One initiative worth exploring could be to allow members to buy more bulk with less plastic usage.  This could work for things like cheese for example.  It is currently possible to purchase some items in bulk, using your own non plastic packaging but it’s not widely advertised or done (it seems to be dependent on the shift and squad leader.)  With more members interest, this could be something offered on an official ongoing basis.


1 National Toxicology Program, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction Monographs on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects: phthalates reviews available at: