On February 18, 2021, peer-reviewed journal Nature Food published a systematic scoping review by Joe Yates et al. from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on the effects of plastics in the food system. The review assessed the number of research papers published from 2000 through 2018 assessing the impacts of plastic on human health, food security and economics, or the environment, at any point in the food life cycle from agricultural production to waste disposal. Over 3,300 studies were included. The authors found the majority of work during that time period “had at least one outcome related to food security and economics” (75%), followed by human health (which includes food nutrient content, food contamination, and medical effects, 48%), and the environment (8%). Few studies in the reviewed literature (2–4%) directly investigated the effects of food system plastics on human health such as chemical presence in urine samples or long-term health effects. According to the interactive evidence map published with the paper, 117 studies (3.5%) looked at some aspect of the relationship between plastic food packaging and human health.
The rate of publication on the subject of plastics in the food system increased 400% between the years 2000 and 2018, but the research was not evenly distributed geographically. The majority of studies took place within China, India, and the United States with low-income countries only included in 1.6% of studies. Additionally, the authors found only eight meta-analyses, and all looked at plastic in agriculture.
Over the last few years, interest in plastics and the food system has continued to grow, and some other recent research may begin to address the gaps Yates et al. illuminated (FPF reported here and here). Some work by researchers in low-income countries recently published include a review by Galarpe et al. of macro- and microplastics pollution research within the Philippines as well as pollution regulations related to plastic food packaging. Bisphenol A (BPA, CAS 80-05-7) is an endocrine disrupting chemical used as a plastic additive that is unregulated in Africa, prompting Rotimi et al. to review levels of BPA found in the environment and organisms across Africa. And Salhofer et al. investigated human and environmental health hazards from plastic recycling in Vietnam.
Researchers around the world, including the Food Packaging Forum, continue to study the effects of food system plastics on aspects of health, economies, and ecosystems, but this review study by Yates et al. highlights that there is much still to be done.
Yates J. et al. (February 18, 2021). “A systematic scoping review of environmental, food security and health impacts of food system plastics.” Nature Food
Galarpe et al. (April 30, 2021). “The nexus of macroplastic and microplastic research and plastic regulation policies in the Philippines marine coastal environments.” Marine Pollution Bulletin
Rotimi et al. (October 9, 2020). “Bisphenol A in Africa: A review of environmental and biological levels.” Science of the Total Environment
Salhofer et al. (April 15, 2021). “Plastic Recycling Practices in Vietnam and Related Hazards for Health and the Environment.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health