Plastic Exposed and the UNWRAPPED Conference

Plastic Exposed

Throw-away plastics and food packaging don’t just harm turtles and whales. They contain a toxic soup of chemicals that threaten each of us and our families. That makes the the human health impacts of plastics and food packaging chemicals personal.

UPSTREAM and its partners (Food Packaging Forum, Zero Waste Europe, and GAIA) are collaborating on the Plastic Exposed project- an international initiative to expose the human health threats of plastics and other types of food packaging. The goal of the project is to add the human health effects of single use packaging to the arsenal of information we use in advocating for a better way than throw-away.

Plastic Exposed and the UNWRAPPED Conference

Exposing the threats of single-use food packaging will help drive the transition to reusable and refillable packaging. Why? Because consumer perceptions of food safety have historically had a dramatic impact on consumer behavior, regulation, and production. That’s why organic food consumption has increased dramatically and why there’s been huge growth in the EU and US in advertising “clean” food. Because consumers are concerned about the cleanliness and safety of the food they consume, the food industry increasingly advertises products as organic, clean, and natural.  

Few people are aware of the wide array of chemicals in food packaging that migrate into food and beverages and how poorly regulated they are. In a recent study by US EPA, scientists estimated that chemicals from food packaging present the most relevant exposure source for the general public to chemicals.* The chemical cocktails leaching from plastics and other types of food packaging and entering our bodies can disrupt the endocrine system, affect brains, and target the immune system. Exposure to packaging chemicals and plasticizers in-utero can harm people for life. Diseases such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic diseases, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, depression, arthritis, asthma and chronic fatigue can result from exposure to food packaging chemicals.**

Micro and nano- plastic particles are entering our bodies from food (seafood, honey, table salt, beer), drinking water, and the air we breathe. While the full scale of potential health impacts are unknown, existing research shows plastic particles can cause chronic inflammation in our bodies, particles can cross cell boundaries and travel through the circulatory system lodging in major organs. These effects may cause a wide array of health problems. Leading environmental health scientists recognize this as an emerging issue and have called for further investigation. For a more in-depth discussion of the state of the science, check out Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.

The Plastic Exposed project is developing a scientific consensus statement about the human health threats of plastics and food packaging. The statement will be signed by leading environmental scientists from across the globe and will used as a call to action around the world to decrease chemicals in food packaging and create safer methods of delivering food and beverages to consumers. The scientific consensus statement will be released at the UNWRAPPED conference on June 12-14, 2019.

The project will translate the complex scientific research in this field into scientifically based messaging for advocates, policy-makers, consumers, and corporate decision-makers and we will share it across the globe. Stay tuned as UPSTREAM will be adding new fact sheets, infographics, resources and information to this page mid-way through 2019.

Life-Cycle Impacts of Plastic

A report released in February 2019 reveals that plastic is a human health crisis hiding in plain sight. Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, authored by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), University of Exeter, and UPSTREAM, brings together research that exposes the distinct toxic risks plastic poses to human health at every stage of the plastic lifecycle, from extraction of fossil fuels, to consumer use, to disposal and beyond.

To date, research into the human health impacts of plastic have focused narrowly on specific moments in the plastic lifecycle, often on single products, processes, or exposure pathways. This approach fails to recognize that significant, complex, and intersecting human health impacts occur at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: from wellhead to refinery, from store shelves to human bodies, and from waste management to ongoing impacts of microplastics in the air, water, and soil. Plastic & Health presents the full panorama of human health impacts of plastic and counsels that any solution to the plastic crisis must address the full lifecycle.

According to the report, uncertainties and knowledge gaps often impede regulation and the ability of consumers, communities, and policymakers to make informed decisions. However, the full scale of health impacts throughout plastic’s lifecycle are overwhelming and warrant a precautionary approach.

Full report here. Executive summary here.

* Predicting exposure to food contact chemicals. Food Packaging Forum,

** Holger G et al. 2016. Current concepts in chronic inflammatory diseases. J Allergy Clinical Immunol. 138, 47–56.