Plastic Packaging and Health: The UNWRAPPED Conference

In June, non-profit Upstream (“make throw-away go away”) in partnership with the Food Packaging Forum, Zero Waste Europe and GAIA, presented the UNWRAPPED conference to explore the human health effects of plastics and other types of food packaging. The idea: make the problems associated with single-use packaging personal to help us move us away from it faster.

At Gigantic, our work often involves promoting sustainable alternatives to disposable products, so adding a compelling health angle sounded intriguing.

We’ve known for decades that bisphenols (BPA) and phthalates in everything from plastic bottles to rubber duckies are harmful, but UNWRAPPED took a much deeper dive into the issue, presenting the latest scientific research on packaging, and the health risks posed by ingredients that touch and then migrate into our food.

Half a day into the conference, it was clear that currently regulated additives are just the tip of the toxic iceberg. In plastic packaging alone, there are thousands of known chemicals, including monomers – the building blocks of plastics – but also fillers, plasticizers, flame retardants, colorants, stabilizers, lubricants, foaming agents and many more. Because most of these additives aren’t chemically bound to the plastic matrix, they easily leach out. Sure, quantities are tiny, but many of the chemicals mimic hormones, so even barely measurable amounts can wreak havoc in our bodies. An example are chemicals known as “obesigants” that sabotage stem cells to become fat cells and lead to obesity. Other substances of concern are linked to cancer, diabetes, reproductive problems, anxiety and more.

On day 2, as scientists presented emerging research on micro- and nano-plastics and I struggled to keep the details straight, I wondered “how will we turn this information into relevant, actionable messaging without overwhelming people?” Then somebody shared a factoid: “We each eat a credit card’s worth of plastic per year.” Vivid and attention-grabbing, it resonated with many attendees, but the scientists were cautious, citing the lack of conclusive evidence regarding microplastics in the human body. In the end there was consensus. As one of participant put it: “We may not have all the details, but we know enough to be concerned.”

When the conference closed, there was definitely concern among the 100+ participants—but also high energy and a commitment to leverage the learnings for positive change. We at Gigantic will certainly stay engaged in the topic.

To learn more about the UNWRAPPED conference and view recordings of the presentations, visit www.unwrappedconference.org.

attendees group shot
In June 2019, Stef attended the UNWRAPPED conference that brought together over 100 attendees to share new findings about the human health impacts of food packaging.
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