The History, Promise, and Challenges of Plastic Wrap
The next few posts will focus on the impact of plastics on human and animal wellbeing. I will also look at what is going on locally to offset current efforts by the petrochemical industry to boost plastic use here and across the globe. And I will share some of my recent finds as I search for alternatives to using plastic in my own home.
My name is Susan Holloway. I am a graduate of the EFM Master Class and a member of the EFM board. I bring a lifelong passion for the natural beauty of Northern California, and professional experience in writing, data analysis, and policy development.
This Week: The History, Promise, and Challenges of Plastic Wrap
See-through plastic wrap is very popular in the United States. During a six month period in 2019, nearly 80 million American used at least one roll of plastic wrap, and more than five million Americans used ten or more rolls. Plastic sits in landfills for decades if not centuries after a single use. In this post we’ll explore the history of plastic wrap, examine its properties and effects on health, and analyze the options for mitigating its negative effects on our lives.
Miles and miles of Texas…..Each year, Americans buy enough plastic wrap to shrink-wrap Texas!
The Accidental Birth of Saran Wrap
Plastic wrap was “invented” in the 1930s when a lab procedure went awry, resulting in a sticky gunk so water resistant that it couldn’t be washed from the bottom of the beaker it was created in. The molecules in this new chemical — PVCD (polyvinylidene chloride) — were so tightly bound together that they were nearly impenetrable by water and oxygen molecules. Recognizing the potential value of this impermeability, the military started using it to protect military gear from water. And scientists at Dow Chemical began conducting experiments to determine whether it could be useful in food storage. Their product, Saran Wrap, was ready for purchase in 1949.
Plastic Wrap: Health Effects on Humans
Two aspects of film wrap are primarily responsible for its toxic effects on human health. Monomers are the basic building blocks of plastics. In the case of plastic wrap, the key monomer unit is vinyl chloride, which forms a chain to create polyvinyl chloride or PVC.
Additives such as phthalates are a second component of plastics. They are used to make the plastic item softer, more flexible, and more transparent. In the US, plastic wrap contains a phthalate-like “plasticizer” called DEHA. Studies have shown that DEHA migrates from plastic wrap into food—particularly high fat food such as cheese and particularly when it is heated.
Moreover, when PVC ends up in landfills or incinerators, it can release dioxin, a highly toxic chemical.
All these chemicals are endocrine disruptors. They copy or mimic the actions of the hormone estrogen in the body. Endocrine disruptors may interfere with the development of babies in utero, and are associated with autism, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder as well as fertility problems, cancer, obesity and type-2 diabetes.
Studies conducted in the 1990s showed that DEHA can cause liver tumors in mice. Specific evidence on humans is lacking, in part because the effects occur over a prolonged period of time. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of significant exposure to PVC and DEHA are of concern to many scientists.
Why is Saran Wrap So Beloved?
Some of you may know the work of comedian Mel Brooks. In one of his most famous sketches, playing “the 2,000 Year Old Man,” he claims that Saran Wrap is the greatest invention of humankind, gushing “You can look through it. You can touch it. You can put it over your face and you can fool around and everything. It’s so good and cute….I love it.”
Plastic wrap has escaped much of the criticism raised by environmentalists concerning other single use plastic products. But why?
Saran Wrap was positively associated with cleanliness, thrift, and domesticity during a period of American history when women’s role as home maker was reinforced by cultural messages as well as political and economic pressures. Moreover, as Mel Brooks managed to convey, plastic wrap can seem somehow “cute.” Thin and transparent, it doesn’t take up as much space in a landfill as a plastic bottle or wash up on beaches like a pink plastic bag.
McDonald's began putting food in Styrofoam clamshells in the 1980s, but public outcry forced the company to phase these containers out by 1990. Why were they singled out while plastic wrap received little attention? When McDonald’s introduced their packaging the environmental movement was more active than when plastic wrap was introduced to consumers. Associated with a “throw away” mentality, fast-food packaging also lacked the moral virtues associated with Saran Wrap and similar products. Indeed, the bulky items were easy to imagine sitting in a landfill for hundreds of years, unlike its cute, slinky cousin.
Can we recycle plastic wrap these days?
It was a sad day when I finally realized that recycling is not now nor will it ever be a good solution to our plastic pollution problem. While it feels good to recycle, the reality is that a very small percentage of plastic — 10% — is recycled. Most of it ends up in a landfill or is incinerated.
That percentage is even lower for plastic wrap. Plastic wrap gums up the machinery at the processing plant, creating a need for expensive specialized parts. Local governments may sometimes pressure waste haulers to accept plastic wrap, but very little if any of it is actually recycled.
A case in point: Marin Sanitary Service, the waste hauler in my community, does not accept plastic wrap for recycling. On their website they appeal to the civic responsibility of their customers, “Remember: keeping your film plastics out of your recycling may feel like a small contribution, but when it’s multiplied by the entire community, it makes an enormous difference!”
Marin residents can go to the following website find out whether their local hauler will accept plastic wrap for recycling:
The plastics industry continues to promote plastic recycling as a solution to plastic pollution even in the face of substantial evidence that the process is too labor intensive and expensive to be a feasible option. For an excellent overview of the role of plastics ndustry in “green washing” the public about recycling, I highly recommend this episode of Frontline called Plastic Wars which premiered in March of 2020:
What you can do at home? Green alternatives to plastic wrap.
How can you keep your leftover spaghetti fresh without some kind of plastic wrap? Well, my mother tells me that in the olden days, people used to put leftovers in a bowl or a Mason jar. She adds that it’s not the end of the world if the food isn’t wrapped up like a mummy. If you want to get fancy, protect your containers with cloth covers. You can find nice ones locally at https://www.ambatalia.com/shop/cloth-bowl-covers-basics
OK, but what about taking a sandwich to the beach, you say? Several companies have developed a reusable wrap made from beeswax. This type of wrap softens when it comes into contact with the warmth of your hand so can be molded to wrap a sandwich or cover a bowl. Bee’s Wrap, to give one example, is made from organic cotton, beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin. It is washable and compostable.
Other ways to pack a picnic include stainless steel tiffins, stacked metal lunch boxes used throughout India. Their Japanese counterparts, bento boxes, are also available in stainless steel as well as wood. Here’s one place to read about some of your options: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/plastic-free-food-storage-containers
…AND IF YOU DO USE PLASTIC WRAP, DON’T HEAT IT UP!
“Avoid allowing plastic wrap to come into contact with food, especially when heating or if the food has a high fat content (like meat or cheese).” Source: National Center for Health Research
To learn more about plastic wrap and its effects on the environment and our health…..
Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner of an egret landing in Marin’s Corte Madera saltwater wetlands. Nita and Rob’s new award-winning call-to-action book, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” co-published with the California Native Plant Society, is available at www.wildflowerbook.com. To see more birds and other images visit www.winterbadger.com.
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have ideas for future Notebook topics? Or a new idea for reducing waste? Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.