Seemingly unrelated yet alarming reports last week share common origins and causes.
Early last week, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW)’s Nutrition Across the Life Stages revealed that a third of Australia’s energy intake comes from junk food. For teenagers the consumption of these “discretionary foods” makes up 41% of their energy intake. This along with a lack of exercise is contributing to Australia’s obesity epidemic. Almost 25% of children and 65% of adults are overweight or obese according to the AIHW’s A Picture of Overweight and Obesity.
The launch of McDonalds in 1955 heralded the beginning of junk food as we know it today. At that time, McDonalds was expensive and inconvenient. Automobiles were still catching on so who would want to drive away from one’s home to go and eat? It was positioned as a rare treat to relieve mothers of their cooking duties. As cars grew popular, demand increased as did the speed of production and costs plummeted. McDonalds became the very cheapest option. Today a “Cheesy BBQ” burger is just $2.00. On November 1, McDonalds will launch its most aggressive “meal deal” ever. The “Classic Meal” includes four items for just $6.00. With the advent of the Drive Thru in 1975 and today with Uber Eats, McDonalds is now also incredibly convenient. Consumers today live for cheap and convenient.
Later last week the European Parliament vote 571 to 53 in support of a ban on the 10 most commonly found single-use plastics in the ocean by 2021. Items include straws, plates, cutlery and cotton swab sticks.
Like junk food, plastic as a material first appeared en masse in the 1950’s. The introduction of plastics in aerospace and medical devices was transformational. Over time however just as junk food became a daily source of nutrition, plastic too has inappropriately found its way into everyday products. Just like McDonalds, the demand for plastic as a raw material soared, costs plummeted and it has become the cheapest of raw materials. And because of its disposability, it is also the most convenient. Plastic is in essence the junk food of the material world: cheap and convenient.
70 years on and we are now paying the price for our desire for cheap and convenient junk food and cheap and convenient plastic. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, due to soaring childhood obesity rates our children may be the first generation in 200 years to not outlive their parents. Richard Attenborough tells us that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than sea life. Most disturbingly a small study by the Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency Austria also announced this week showed for the first time the presence of micro-plastics in human stool samples. A most unfortunate case of worlds colliding.