Mother Earth Living

De-Plasticize Your Life: 3 Harmful Plastics to Avoid

In everything from our food-storage containers and shampoo bottles to our flooring and kids' toys, plastic is pervasive. But with a few simple steps, you can get harmful plastics out of your life for good.
By Alli Kingfisher and Kelly Lerner
March/April 2011
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Avoid plastic by buying and storing food in glass containers.


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When we ordered a pot of stress-reducing green tea at a cafe in Spokane, Washington, we were surprised when it arrived in plastic tea bags. The food-grade nylon, highly stable to 400 degrees, wasn’t likely to leach anything toxic into our tea, but we had to wonder why the company chose environmentally harmful plastic over one of the natural materials that have been used to steep tea for centuries. Plastic is pervasive—it’s even part of our afternoon tea. We’ve found, however, that you can minimize its negative effects by understanding which types are harmful and seeking out the easy-to-find alternatives.

Three Plastics to Avoid 

#3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic is used to make toys, shower curtains, IV bags, medical tubes, vinyl flooring and wallpaper. Phthalates (also known as plasticizers) are added to soften PVC. Phthalates are also used as solvents in shampoo, nail polish and hair spray. Research shows phthalates can leach out of these products and enter the human body, where they can cause endocrine disruption, reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy and liver cancer.

#6 PS (polystyrene), made of petroleum byproducts, is commonly used for meat trays, foam food containers and Styrofoam. PS can leach carcinogens and hormone disruptors, contributing to infertility and cancer, and its production requires carcinogens and ozone layer-depleting compounds. Because PS is so light and unsinkable (it’s 98 percent air), it is easily carried by wind and is a main component of marine debris.

#7 is the plastic code for “other” and comprises many plastics, but the most common type of #7 is polycarbonate with added bisphenol-A (BPA), used to make reusable food containers, CDs, DVDs, sunglasses and car parts, among numerous other products. Also used in the lining of canned food products, BPA has the potential to break down quickly when heated or washed with a strong detergent. Trace amounts of BPA have been linked to disruptions in the endocrine system, impaired brain and neurological functions, cancer, early puberty, obesity and chemotherapy resistance. Young children and infants are at higher risk.

Plastic is... 

■ made from petroleum and chemicals toxic to human and animal health.
■ energy-intensive to manufacture, consuming nonrenewable resources and emitting CO2.
■ difficult to recycle and is usually “down-cycled” into a less useful type.
■ often sent to the landfill as solid waste.

8 Ways to Avoid Plastic 

1. Buy and store food in glass containers.

2. Try not to buy items in plastic packaging, and take your own cloth bag to the market.

3. Avoid polycarbonate drinking bottles with BPA and aluminum bottles with liners containing BPA. (BPA-free water bottles almost always say so on the label.)

4. Most canned food liners contain BPA. Support the few companies that don’t use BPA, and contact canned food manufacturers to let them know you won’t buy BPA-lined cans.

5. Don’t give plastic teethers or toys to infants and young children.

6. Avoid storing fatty foods such as meat and cheese—more likely to absorb leached chemicals—in plastic.

7. Never heat food in plastic containers. A “microwavable” label on a plastic container only means it won’t melt, crack or fall apart—not that it’s safe for human health.

8. If you do use plastic containers, don’t put them in the dishwasher. Handwash them gently with nonabrasive soap.

Plastic by Numbers  

Turn a plastic container over to find its recycling code, which indicates the type of resin used to create the plastic.

#1 PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate), also known as polyester 

Typical Uses: Water and soft drink bottles; prepared salad and spinach containers
Health & Environmental Impacts: Intended for single use—plastic can break down and host bacteria; potential to interfere with reproductive hormones

#2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene)  

Typical Uses: Opaque milk jugs; cereal box liners; liquid detergent bottles; most shampoo bottles
Health & Environmental Impacts: Low risk of leaching

#3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) 

Typical Uses: Plastic wrap, cooking oil bottles, toys, plumbing pipes, window and door frames, insulation (PVC foam)
Health & Environmental Impacts: Known as the “toxic plastic”; can cause endocrine disruption, reduced sperm count, testicular atrophy and liver cancer

#4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene) 

Typical Uses: Plastic wrap; grocery, garbage and sandwich bags
Health & Environmental Impacts: Not known to leach chemicals

#5 PP (polypropylene) 

Typical Uses: Yogurt and margarine tubs; microwavable meal trays; fiber for carpets, wall coverings and vehicle upholstery
Health & Environmental Impacts: Hazardous during manufacture but not known to leach chemicals

#6 PS (polystyrene) 

Typical Uses: Styrofoam cups; clamshell containers; foam meat trays; plastic cutlery; electronics packaging; insulation
Health & Environmental Impacts: Eye, nose and throat irritant; stored in body fat; can cause cancer in production workers; harmful to marine life

#7 PC (polycarbonate), PLA (polylactide) and any other plastic not included in categories above  

Typical Uses: Baby bottles; some reusable water bottles; stain-resistant food-storage containers
Health & Environmental Impacts: BPA-containing polycarbonate causes endocrine and reproductive system disruption; impaired neurological functions; cancer; cardiovascular system damage; early puberty; obesity; chemotherapy resistance

Alli Kingfisher, the state of Washington’s green building and sustainability specialist, is plotting to green her 1906 home in Spokane. Kelly Lerner, a Spokane-based architect specializing in healthy, super-energy-efficient homes, is co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green Home. See her work at one-world-design.com. 


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Post a comment below.

 

GAYLEE
3/12/2014 5:23:15 PM
Just in case you're not depressed enough about the plastics situation (but, like me, prefer to know): http://m.motherjones.com/environment/2014/03/tritan-certichem-eastman-bpa-free-plastic-safe

grax.mccoar
3/6/2014 10:35:17 AM
Nylon is a different material than the rest of these plastics. While the production methods are environmentally damaging, nylon itself is derived from such 'terrible' substances as coal, ammonia, water and organic acids. Nylon even slowly biodegrades.

Sandy Ryan
12/11/2012 10:23:54 PM
We are slowly changing over to glass storage containers at my house. I also read that it takes a paper bag about a month to decompose where as it takes 100 years plus for a plastic bag to decompose.

ChristineP
10/9/2012 6:44:30 PM
When you say you recycle them, I wonder if they truly get recycled even if you separate them from your trash. I think they are #6 polystyrene and not generally recyclable.

Melissa Bice
10/3/2012 2:28:40 PM
You could try using a re-usable k-cup. They are primarily metal (stainless or aluminum- not sure which,) and most of the ones I have seen available only have a small strip of some type of plastic reinforcement. You can use whatever coffee or tea leaves you'd like to buy, and not have to deal with the 'disposable' cups.

Dagmar Bastiks
10/3/2012 3:19:44 AM
I've been wondering about the Keurig brewing 1 cup system that heats up water it then passes through the small plastic container w coffee and what kind of plastic I get a daily dose of. I personally recycle the little containers but it takes work to to that and I suspect most toss them. I put the grounds on my azaleas and the cups in the recyle bin, tossing only the lining paper. The company claims it is justified since it donates to protect rainforests...








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