The Problem with Plastics
Most plastics are made from crude oil. And the production of plastics is harmful to the environment – for example, the production of PVC releases dioxin, a known carcinogen. Even worse, some plastics contain toxins that can cause harmful health effects, especially in children and pregnant women. Plastics degrade over time and when heated, which causes toxins to leach out of the plastic and into the food within them. Most plastics end up sitting in landfills where these toxins leach into our rivers and streams and eventually make their way into our tap water. The toxins are even found in household dust, where they end up after plastics break down in our homes.
Polycarbonate plastics contain Bisphenol-A or BPA, a synthetic estrogen used to harden polycarbonate plastics which has been linked to disruption of the endocrine system, abnormalities in the reproductive system, cancer, damage to the cardiovascular system, early puberty, obesity, resistance to chemotherapy and more. BPA is found in a ton of household products, including the linings of metal food and soda cans, water bottles, baby bottles, plastic food storage containers, dental sealants, plastic tableware, jar lids, eyeglass lenses, electronic equipment and CDs. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found BPA in the urine of 93 percent of those tested with children being the most vulnerable to the effects of BPA. BPA is one of five substances identified by the Environment Protection Agency as a “chemical of concern.” The others are phthalates, PBDEs, PFOA and short-chain chlorinated paraffins.
Other plastics, including PVC, contain phthalates used to make plastics more flexible and softer. Phthalates have been linked to disruptions of the endocrine system, reduced sperm count, abnormalities of the male reproductive system, liver cancer and other health effects. Phthalates are found in perfumes, personal care products (such as shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, soap and nail polish), shower curtains, food packaging, vinyl flooring and wall coverings and medical supplies. Phthalates are also an EPA “chemical of concern.” Some steps have been taken to reduce some phthalates in children’s toys and products, but they are still allowed in things like food packaging and personal care products. Personal care products containing “fragrance” often have phthalates and are not required to disclose this.
It is important to note that there is debate about whether there are safe plastics. Most studies are only linking health problems to the use of plastics, meaning that they cannot conclusively prove that using plastic is causing a specific health issue. We know that certain plastics contain dangerous toxins but we don’t know how much exposure to these toxins our bodies can tolerate. The bottom line is that we don’t know exactly how plastics are affecting our bodies so take a better safe than sorry approach and limit your use of plastics. And, more importantly, we don’t know what kind of effect all of the different chemicals over long periods of time are having on our overall health.
Playing it Safe with Plastics
There are a number of steps you can take in order to avoid any potential harmful effects from plastic.
- Avoid heating or freezing plastics. Exposing plastics to extreme heat or cold accelerates the leaching process.
- Don’t use plastic wraps in the microwave; instead, use wax paper.
- Never microwave plastic containers that were intended for a single use (such as any food container that you bought at the grocery store – e.g. milk, butter. yogurt, etc) and check to make sure that the plastic you do heat says “microwave safe.”
- Do not reuse any single-use containers because they can degrade over time and after washing in hot water.
- If you really want to reuse single-use plastic containers, use them for non-food items, such as storing playdough or organizing your office supplies.
- Always discard plastics after they show signs of wear, such as scratches, warping or discoloration.
- Be wary about products that claim to be better because they use recycled plastic. These products may help the environment by reusing plastic but they are still composed of plastic and carry the same health risks.
Alternatives to Plastic
The best approach when it comes to plastic is to just avoid it. Alternatives to plastic are popping up everywhere, from stainless steel water bottles to bamboo plates. The following are some tips for ridding your life of plastic. For more tips, check out the blog My Plastic Free Life or the website Life Without Plastic.
- In light of the dangers associated with traditional plastics, a need has arisen for a group of plastics that are earth-friendly and better for your health. Now you can find plastics made out of potato, rice, corn, sugar cane and soy starches. These plastics are biodegradable and often compostable.
- Another alternative is to choose glass or stainless steel whenever possible. For example, you can use glass containers for storing food in the refrigerator or freezer. These also work great in the microwave and oven. Stainless steel is a great option for water bottles. You can find glass baby bottles with protective silicone covers and stainless steel sippy cups which can hold everything from juice to milk.
- Instead of plastic baggies, choose wax paper bags or reusable sandwich containers made from stainless steel or other safer materials. If you do have to use plastic baggies, choose the ones made for the freezer as they tend to be slower to degrade and thus leach harmful toxins.
- Instead of plastic cutting boards, try bamboo and glass boards.
- Use wooden, steel or silicone spatulas and spoons instead of plastic.
- Avoid plastic disposable plates, cups and utensils. Instead, invest in some reusable bamboo or stainless steel dishes and utensils to use for parties and BBQs.
Types of Plastic
There are a number of different types of plastic. Some of them are labeled with a number inside a triangle. If not, you will have to contact the manufacturer to find out the type of plastic. Some types of plastic are more toxic than others. Your best bet is to avoid types 3, 6 and 7. Also, you need to know the type of plastic to know whether you can recycle it. Below is a list of the types:
1> PETE, or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – used for thin, clear bottles (such as soda, water and cooking oil bottles) and medicine bottles. One of the safer plastics. Usually can be recycled. Not safe for reuse or heating because it can leach di (2-ethylhexyl) adipate (or DEHA), which is a known carcinogen.
2> HDPE (high density polyethylene) – sturdy, thicker, opaque plastic used for milk, juice and detergent bottles, toys and reusable food storage containers. One of the safer plastics. Usually can be recycled. Generally okay to reuse but do not heat.
3> PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – used for plastic wrap (including that used to wrap meat and cheese) and detergent and cooking oil bottles. PVC is not considered safe because it often has dioxin, a carcinogen, and phthalates, which have been linked to birth defects and cancer. Cannot be recycled.
4> LDPE (low density polyethylene) – used for plastic grocery bags, plastic wrap and baby bottle liners. One of the safer plastics. Usually cannot be reused or recycled. Avoid using with high-fat foods, which can more readily absorb chemical additives in the plastic.
5> PP, or PPE (polypropylene) – hard, flexible plastic used for ice cream containers, squeeze bottles, take-out containers and yogurt/butter tubs and some carpets. It is the safest plastic. Usually can be recycled. Only reuse according to the manufacturers’ instructions.
6> PS (polystyrene) – used for rigid take-out containers, throw-away utensils and meat trays. Not safe when heated because it leaches the highly-toxic styrene, a carcinogen and mutagen. Usually cannot be recycled.
7> Other (usually polycarbonate, nylon and acrylic) – Polycarbonate is used for baby bottles, large water jugs and reusable sports bottles. Not considered safe because it can leach bisphenol A, a synthetic estrogen and hormone disrupter. Usually cannot be recycled.