As of 2019, the average person — depending on their diet — consumes about five grams or a credit card’s worth of plastic a week. Consuming any amount of plastic is unsafe. Yet, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) use outdated policies that allow manufacturing companies to package food and water in the U.S. with harmful materials. A recent study conducted by PennEnvironment revealed microplastics were found in all samples from “50 of Pennsylvania’s cleanest and most ecologically important waterways.”
Municipalities and county officials across the country have passed legislation that address single-use plastic bans. However, stronger policies and guidance at the federal level will firmly and directly address nationwide plastic issues. The FDA and EPA must limit and reduce the negative risks that are associated with plastic product packaging.
The Plastic Health Coalition defines three ways microplastics affect human health: 1) microplastic consumption that physically enters our bodies every day, 2) chemical additives that result from plastic production, and 3) microplastics attracting micro-organisms which contain pathogens that enter our bodies and increase the risk of bacterial infection. The FDA and EPA acknowledge that they allow manufacturers to package products in potentially harmful materials and chemicals that are intended for consumption. While recycling plastic products is helpful, recycling only contributes to half of the progress needed to reduce plastic consumption. Although the EPA has set various recycle rates, the agency needs take more action.
Regardless of the EPA’s efforts to set goals to recycle plastics, its sole goal should be to use materials that will decrease the harmful effects on our bodies and not the sustainability of the materials. The EPA has set a goal for the U.S. to have a 50% recycling rate by 2030. As of 2022, the recycling rate was 32%. The overall progressive recycling efforts are a good measure of the amount consumers are recycling in the U.S., but the supply chain causes of why the EPA allows manufacturing companies to package food and water with harmful materials.
Single-use plastics are 50% of all plastics produced each year and plastic wastage continues to grow at an annual rate of 9%. Manufacturers purposely using materials that are designed for only single-use results in the ingestion of dangerous chemicals. The EPA must collaborate directly with companies across the country to accelerate the transition from a plastic reliant economy to one that uses plastic as a secondary option.
The lack of current FDA and EPA policies pertaining to plastics in food and water is part of a cyclical problem that negatively impacts consumers. Congress last amended the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act (FDAMA) in 1997. The FDAMA eliminates the requirement of the FDA’s premarket approval for most packaging and other substances that encounter food. Currently this law encourages the manufacturer to notify the FDA about its intent to use certain food contact substances, and the FDA can object within 120 days. Instead of encouraging a manufacturer to be responsible, the FDA needs direct oversight over this process and have final approval of safe food and water distribution enforcement.
Forward-thinking and modern changes to both the FDA’s and EPA’s regulation — particularly on the materials the agencies allow consumers to ingest in food and water — can drastically reduce the amount of microplastics consumed by the American public. Outlining mandatory plastic output limits per company per year is a start.