Mother Earth Living

Safety Concerns About Plastic Food Storage Containers

Be smart; use plastics safely.
By Jeffrey Hollender with Alexandra Zissu
January 2011 Web
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"Planet Home" is a guide to maintaining every room of your home, from the kitchen to the garage, in a natural, nontoxic way. Jeffrey Hollender offers straightforward advice, comprehensive checklists, quick tips and resources while revealing the hidden repercussions of daily routines that most of us take for granted.
Photo Courtesy Clarkson Potter

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The following is an excerpt from Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning and Greening the World You Care About Most by Jeffrey Hollender with Alexandra Zissu (Clarkson Potter, 2010). The excerpt is from a chapter 2: The Kitchen. 

Storing Safely 

Plastics are everywhere in the kitchen. And it seems that there are news reports daily on the hazards of hormone-disrupting chemicals found in plastics, which get into our food, beverages, and even baby formula. Although there are plastics on the market that are generally considered safe to use with food, there is a growing body of evidence showing that plastics need to be treated gently, washed by hand, and never, ever placed in a microwave, where their chemicals leach into what’s being heated, especially things with a high fat content, like meat and cheese. Plastics are ubiquitous because they’re supposed to be easy, but none of that sounds easy. Plastics are also derived from a nonrenewable resource (petroleum), and not all kinds are recyclable. Even the ones that are recyclable often wind up overcrowding landfills or floating around in our waterways. Both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans now have great garbage patches. Aquatic life is currently ingesting broken-down bits of these plastics, some of which contain those hormone-disrupting chemicals. Humans are then eating fish that have eaten these plastics. It’s an ugly cycle.

It might be difficult (but not impossible) to avoid plastic packaging at the supermarket. When it comes to storing your leftovers at home, why not bypass plastics altogether— baggies, wrap, or containers—and use reliable, renewable, and reusable containers made of glass, stainless steel, and lead-free ceramic instead. This way you won’t have to worry about what’s migrating into your food or hope the plastic currently considered safe doesn’t become tomorrow’s must-avoid. Glass storage containers are widely available, or you can use what you already have in your kitchen: old jelly, peanut butter, or pickle jars. Glass can also go in the freezer—just make sure to leave enough room for liquid to expand. Recycle your old plastic containers if you can, or use them to store nonfood items (screws, coins, pencils). If they’re made from a safe plastic, they can also be reused as bath toys. If you’d like a replacement for plastic wrap, try a reusable wrap, or opt for wax paper coated in non-genetically-modified (GM) soy wax instead of petroleum-derived wax.

Plastics Safety 

Of course, there are certain circumstances under which no plastic is safe to use. Heat, harsh detergents, and old age all promote the degradation of plastics and the leaching of compounds they contain. Here are some rules for using plastics safely in the kitchen:

• Never microwave food in plastic of any kind, including plastic wraps and socalled microwave-safe containers. Transfer microwaveable foods to a safe glass or ceramic alternative before heating. The term “microwave-safe” only means the plastic in question won’t become visibly damaged when heated, not that it won’t leach.

• Don’t serve or store hot foods, acidic foods, or foods with a high fat or oil content in plastic containers of any kind, as these types of edibles are more likely to encourage leaching. Use glass, metal, or lead-free ceramics instead. A simple storage system can be created with any bowl and a similarly sized plate used as a lid.

• Avoid the temptation to save and reuse commercial food packaging and drink bottles, including plastic water bottles, which are not designed for repeated uses and become more prone to leaching with repeated cleanings.

• When reusable plastic containers made from #4 and #5 plastic become heavily worn or scratched, retire and recycle them.

• Always wash plastic containers by hand with warm water and mild dish liquid. Keep them out of the dishwasher.

• Avoid putting cling wraps in direct contact with food. Instead, use unbleached wax paper or a glass container for food storage.

• Plastic sandwich and food-storage bags are typically made from polyethylene, which is considered nontoxic. However, there is little to no data available that verifies the safety of washing and reusing such bags. Since this practice could potentially make them prone to leaching, it’s difficult to recommend it. Instead, use wax paper bags or reusable solutions like the Snack- Taxi, the Wrap-n-Mat, or the alternatives at

• Practice caution and use only glass bottles for infant feedings.

• When it comes to buying cling wrap and reusable food containers, purchase only those that tell you exactly what type of plastic they’re made of and whether they are PVC-free.

Reprinted from Planet Home by Jeffrey Hollender with Alexandra Zissu. Copyright © Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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