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Live plastic packaging Q&A

Live plastic packing QA

This live Q&A took place on Thursday 10th April 2014 12:00 pm. 

Scare stories about bisphenol A (BPA), PVC and phthalates are still circulating, they regularly come across journalists’ desks and we get calls about them. Professor Alan Boobis from Imperial College London and Katherine Fleet, Environment and Sustainbility Manager at RPC (representing the British Plastic Federation's Packaging Group) answered your questions below.

If you still have questions email enquiries@senseaboutscience.org.

Read our Storify of the event.

1. What is BPA and is it in all plastics? (Victoria Murphy)

Katherine Fleet: "Bisphenol A or 'BPA' is a chemical compound used in the manufacture of certain plastics such as food or drink can linings in packaging. Bisphenol A has been approved as safe for use in all food and drink containers by the European Food Safety Authority and the UK Food Standards Agency, and dietary exposure to BPA is well below the recognised tolerable daily intake (TDI). EFSA finds there is no health concern as the highest estimates for combined oral and non-oral exposure to BPA are 3-5 times lower than the proposed TDI. For all population groups, oral exposure on its own is more than 5-fold below the TDI."

2. Why do people focus on theoretical risks of toxicity from plastic, but not actual environmental harms from waste plastic? (@gimpyblog)

KF: "While the industry appreciates that the littering of plastics is an issue it is one that we are working to address through educational schemes such as ‘Operation Clean Sweep’ and through organisations such as Incpen. In reality, ‘waste’ plastic should be seen as a resource as it is a recyclable material which can be used many times."

3. I have been told that drinking from a water bottle that has been left in a hot car can be dangerous because chemicals can leech from the packaging in the hot temperatures. Is this a real risk? (Hilary Richmond)

Simple one to start. Bottled water in my car - I have seen a lot of unsubstantiated claims. Is it a problem? (@DaveCunnah)

KF: "Soft drinks bottles should be stored in the same way as many food items - they should be kept in a cool, dark place. However, there are no carcinogens in PET plastic - it is a myth that a plastic bottle left in a car will leach carcinogens into the soft drink it contains. For more information on bottles see: http://www.bpf.co.uk/Sustainability/PET_Plastic_Bottles_Facts_Not_Myths.aspx"

4. Who is funding research showing that certain plastic packaging is safe? (Eleanor Dolan)

Alan Boobis: "The research does not show that certain plastic packaging is safe. It generates data from which such a conclusion can be reached. It is funded from a variety of sources, both public and private."

5. Are there chemicals that are beneficial to health in food packaging? (Sarah Parkinson)

AB: "The answer depends on how broadly the question is defined. There are obviously indirect benefits by preventing food spoilage and microbial contamination. I am not sure about direct benefits. I suspect this is an area that has not been widely studied, as most of the focus has been on potential harmful effects."

6. Why is BPA being banned from food containers in France in 2015, but not UK? (Chris Peters)

AB: "Risk assessors in France have interpreted a number of studies to suggest that there may be harmful effects at levels lower than those shown in studies used previously to establish acceptable exposure levels. However, this interpretation is not shared by assessors in other authorities such as EFSA or in the UK. Hence, the difference in regulatory decisions."

7. Given much of the plastic that we use is totally unnecessary, why do we insist on (for instance) using expanded polystyrene for cups, and packaging? Would there be any economic problem with banning its use? (Fergus Kane)

KF: "The plastics industry is constantly working to reduce the weight of packaging and use resources efficiently. Each material is chosen for an application dependant on the properties that make it suitable for its use, with product protection being the highest priority to reduce losses. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is made of 98% air, making it one of the lightest packaging materials therefore reducing environmental impact throughout its lifecycle. For more information on EPS see: http://www.bpf.co.uk/Packaging/Position_Statements/Expanded_and_Extruded_Polystyrene_Position_Statement.aspx"

8. Why is formaldahyde used in food packaging? (Alex Borthwick)

AB: "Formaldehyde may be used in the preparation of some packaging materials or it could arise as a breakdown product of other materials. The levels to which we are exposed to from food packaging are very low. We are exposed to higher levels from natural components of the diet."

9. Should the industry take responsibility for determining safe, toxic release-free ways of biodegrading the plastics they produce? (Sara Stalman)

KF: "As an industry we take our responsibility to provide safe packaging throughout its lifecycle and disposal very seriously. We view plastic as a resource and while biodegradable materials are suitable for certain applications where the correct disposal route is in place, eg home or industry compositing facilities, we view recycling as one of the most viable and sustainable solutions for plastic at the end of its use."

10. Are there alternatives to BPA and phthalates, if they are removed?

AB: "There is ongoing work on alternatives to BPA, for example bisphenol S (BPS). However, few (if any) are yet available that match BPA for its general utility in packaging and, in general, candidates as alternatives have been less well studied than BPA. Nevertheless, it is likely that over the next few years BPA will be replaced by alternatives, at least for many of its uses. I think the situation is somewhat similar for phthalates. There is an active search for alternatives but there is a knowledge gap on the toxicology which will need to be filled before we can be sure that they will not cause harm."

11. Are there epidemiological studies comparing countries using more BPA in packaging and countries that use less? (Ella Beese)

AB: "BPA has been used very widely and I am not sure that it is yet possible to compare high and low use countries, as only recently has its use been banned in some parts of the world. I am not aware of such studies, but I am not an epidemiologist."

12. What steps are the industry taking to minimise use of plastic packaging? (@gimpyblog)

KF: "Plastic packaging is constantly being made lighter by the industry to reduce amounts of packaging. If plastics were not used in packaging and other materials were used instead, then waste and energy consumption would double and weight and costs would quadruple. Plastic packaging therefore provides a lightweight, low carbon and energy efficient solution for the packaging of products.

These estimates of waste and energy savings come from the BPF website here: http://www.bpf.co.uk/Sustainability/Plastics_and_Sustainability.aspx based on figures here: http://www.bpf.co.uk/Plastipedia/Applications/About_Plastics_Packaging.aspx

13. In reference to 10 - Why does Alan think that BPA will be replaced if all the evidence suggests that it is safe? (Lauren Tedaldi)

AB: "This is a reflection of the realities of the market place. Food producers recognise that given sufficient bad press, consumers will stop buying, regardless of how safe a product is. Hence, even in the absence of legislation, companies would like to be able to provide products free of those chemicals with the most negative press, as long as this does not compromise quality and safety."

14. How much BPA do we consume from packaging compared to other sources? (Helen Reegan)

AB: "The major source of exposure is canned foods, from the use of BPA in the coatings. I am unable to provide an accurate estimate of exposure via packaging compare to canned food."

15. When I was in hospital around 20 years ago a nurse told me that I should avoid anything made from petro chemicals and never eat or drink anything that had been stored in plastic because how readily plastic leaches into the contents. Is this a genuine risk? (Anna De Lacy)

AB: "No. The levels of exposure by this route are extremely low, and too low to cause harm."

16. Is it safe to microwave food with cling film on? (Hilary Richmond)

Is it OK to microwave with cling film on your food? (Rob Finch @FinchWrites)

AB: "Yes it is. This has been taken into account in assessing total exposure to bisphenol A."

17. Does the time food spends in plastic containers make a difference to safety? (Eleanor Dolan)

KF: "The time food spends in a plastic container has no impact on safety (just remember to use a product before its use by date). Plastic packaging can in fact prolong the life of some food products by providing an oxygen and moisture barrier that protects the food from spoiling."

18. Is fruit and veg more nutritious unpackaged than from a plastic bag? (Dan Curtis)

KF: "Contrary to popular belief, fruit and vegetables are packaged in order to protect them through the supply chain. This ensures it reaches the consumer in as fresh and nutritious a condition as possible. At home the original packaging also helps extends the life of the food. Watch this great video from Incpen which highlights the reality of this! http://www.goodbadspudly.com/"

19. In reference to the answer to 16: 'Release of phthalates' are often quoted as another reason not to microwave cling film - is this valid? Does cling film contain toxic phthalates? (Lauren Tedaldi)

AB: "Certain phthalates, such as di-2-ethylhexyl adipate (DEHA), are used in the production of cling film. Low levels can migrate into food during microwaving or storage. This migration is taken into account in the risk assessment of phthalates. In general, the levels are such that one would not anticipate any health concern."

20. Is it prudent to take steps to limit our exposure to BPA? If so, what do you advise? (@CarolineFinucan)

AB: "We are exposed to vast numbers of chemicals, both natural and synthetic. In general, these do not readily divide up into those that are ‘good’ and those that are ‘bad’. Almost any chemical can switch from one to another, depending on dose and circumstance. Hence, I do not subscribe to the strategy of limiting exposure to X (in this case BPA) just because it would be prudent. This is an argument that could be used for any chemical. It leads to unnecessary stress, expense and lifestyle restrictions."

21. I have seen cling film warning that it is not safe for freezing - is this the same for other plastic packaging? (Steve Parkinson)

KF: "Rigid plastic packaging is suitable for freezing and in fact is designed to help preserve the flavour, texture and nutrients of food by locking out air and therefore reducing food waste from spoilage. Today plastics containers can be transferred from freezer to microwave and remain virtually unbreakable and safe in all conditions making plastic packaging the material of choice for many frozen food options."

22. Do phthalates influence hormone imbalance?

AB: "At high doses in experimental animals, phthalates can affect hormonal balance. There is little convincing evidence that this occurs at human exposure levels."

23. What proportion of packaging is plastic and how do recycling rates compare to other packaging materials? (Philippa Richardson @Pippylaa)

KF: "I’m not sure about the proportion of packaging in plastic but 37% of rigid plastics packaging was recycled in 2013. While this is lower than other packaging materials, due to the complexity of different types of plastics, the recycling rate is increasing year on year. For example, collection rates of plastic pots, tubs and trays for recycling increased by 208% between 2009 and 2012! These statistics are according to the Recoup Household Plastics Collection Survey. You can find Recoup on Twitter and online @recycleplastics and http://www.recoup.org"

24. Is BPA linked to miscarriages? Why do people think this is the case?

AB: "There is no good evidence that exposure to BPA can cause miscarriages. Whilst there have been one or two studies reporting an association, these were subject to a number of limitations, and it has not been possible to confirm such an association in other studies. Also, the toxicology does not suggest such a risk at levels of human exposure."

25. Is it safe to refill and reuse plastic bottles for drinking water? I've always been told to avoid doing this. (Hilary Richmond)

KF: "Single use plastic bottles are not designed for re-use. In the interest of hygiene and consumer safety the BPF advises against the re-use of single-use bottles. For more information on bottles see http://www.bpf.co.uk/Sustainability/PET_Plastic_Bottles_Facts_Not_Myths.aspx"

26. Would you favour reduction of plastic packaging in favour of non-plastic biodegradable alternatives? (@gimpyblog)

KF: "Packaging is 28% lighter than it was ten years ago. But if we make it too light we will jeopardise product protection as packaging will not be able to withstand the rigours of the supply chain and this will increase product spoilage. Fitness for purpose should be the main criterium when selecting packaging options but end-of-life should also be a consideration. Plastics are a recyclable material while at present disposal options for bio-degradable materials can be limited or non-existent."

27. Should we avoid putting plastic utensils for babies in the dishwasher? (Arthur Smyth Medina)

AB: "My advice would be to follow the manufacturers’ instructions. If utensils are considered dishwater safe, then I think it would be OK to put them in the dishwasher. One benefit is that the temperatures are usually above those from the domestic tap, ensuring more thorough cleaning."

28. What do we know now about how to safely biodegrade plastics currently being used? (Sara Stalman)

KF: "This is very much dependant on the type of plastic in question. Oil based plastics will not degrade but can be recycled and recycling information can generally be found on labels of the product. Plastics that have been manufactured to biodegrade should also have disposal information clearly marked on them making it clear whether they could be included in a home composting system or if they would need to be disposed of in an industrial system that has been designed to take this sort of material."

29. The mistrust of the general public towards plastics packaging often stems from a lack of knowledge and/or a misunderstanding of the regulatory requirements in place, be it in terms of migration (food contact), recycling or other end-of-life requirements; how could the situation be improved in this respect? (Geneviève De Bauw)

AB: "Certainly, greater communication of how the risk assessment of packaging, and its constituents, is performed would help. However, I think there is a broader aspect to consider, which is that not everyone engaged in the debate is simply interested in evidence-based outcomes. There are other agendas in play. Scientists are struggling with how to explain to consumers weight-of-evidence conclusions. Some of the chemicals we are debating are amongst the most extensively studied of all, for example BPA and aspartame. If we cannot agree conclusions on these, what chance is there for less-studied chemicals."

Update: Some of the questions we were asked during the live Q&A couldn't be answered on the day. The British Plastics Federation have subsequently answered some of the remaining questions here.

30. As a diver, I’m interested about the effects of plastic packaging on the marine ecosystem. Not with regard to bisphenol A, PVC and phthalates, but with regard to the consequences of organisms interacting in various ways with all this long lasting trash. It’s certainly disgusting and unpleasant to swim through plastic bags and condoms, but how damaging is it? (Fergus Kane)

BPF: "We agree that used plastics should certainly not be in the oceans and we deplore dumping and littering of any kind. The chemical ingredients of plastics are very carefully regulated and most plastics fall under the regulations concerning plastics in contact with foodstuffs. We are unaware of any single incident of a consumer being harmed by a plastic material."