Plastic is particularly problematic in contact with food. Opt for glass and ceramic in the kitchen.
Photo by Corbis
Plastics: They’re everywhere and in most everything—from electronics and automobiles to food containers. In fact, the average American generates between 88 and 122 pounds of plastic waste at home each year. Plastics contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that interfere with the balance of hormones in the body, and researchers have found that most plastics—even those labeled BPA-free—can leach these chemicals into food.
A study by the Endocrine Society found that even low exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals can cause significant adverse health effects, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and infertility. Plastics are also made from petroleum (a non-renewable resource) and can be difficult to recycle. Use the strategies that follow to help keep your family—and the planet—healthier by learning about the dangers of plastics and cutting back on your use of them.
Around the House
Buy goods made of natural fibers: Engineered fabrics such as polyester, nylon and vinyl are all made of plastic. Clothing, accessories and bedding are frequently made of engineered plastics. Avoid polyester blends for clothing and bedroom linens, opting instead for items made of organic cotton and wool.
Choose a smarter shower curtain: Many shower curtains are made of vinyl, a synthetic material that releases compounds into the air in a process known as offgassing. Offgassing is particularly problematic in small, poorly ventilated bathrooms, where chemicals can be concentrated. Opt for natural curtains that aren’t chemically treated, such as the organic hemp shower curtain available from Rawganique or a flax-based linen shower curtain from Gaiam.
Choose natural flooring: Carpet and vinyl flooring contain the carcinogen polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and release volatile organic compounds—including formaldehyde from glues, fabric treatments, stains and varnishes—into the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Use low-emission alternatives including bamboo, cork, linoleum, ceramic tiles or hardwood.
Build a better bathroom: Bathroom products generate large amounts of plastic waste. One option is to make your own personal-care products and store them in glass or tin containers. Try whipping up your own toothpaste, lotions and soaps, for example. (Find non-toxic beauty recipes at Mother Earth Living's DIY Beauty.) Alternatively, buy products with little or no packaging. Minimally packaged bar soap can sub for liquid hand soap, body wash, and even shampoo and shaving cream. Mountain Sky Soaps sells bar soap in paper packaging, including bars of shaving soap and shampoo soap.
Use refillable products: Reusing is even better than recycling. Instead of plastic disposables, choose refillable/reusable versions of toner cartridges, pens, lighters, toothbrushes, razors and the like to reduce waste.
Avoid liquid laundry soap in plastic bottles: Use powdered laundry detergent packaged in paper boxes or make your own soap using washing soda and grated bar soap. (Find a recipe at Love Your Laundry: Homemade Laundry Detergents.)
In the Kitchen
Opt for nonplastic food-storage containers: Although lightweight and convenient, plastic food containers contain chemicals that easily migrate into food. Giving up plastic containers is a great place to start your plastic-purging campaign. Ceramic and glass containers work well at home, and metal containers are great on the go.
Drink tap water: Bottled water is costly, less regulated for quality than tap water, and produces waste. The average person uses 167 plastic water bottles annually, and recycles only 38. At home, drink tap water—if you are concerned about contaminants, install an on-faucet or whole-house filter. (To learn more about your water quality, check the Environmental Protection Agency's Local Drinking Water Information.) When you’re on the go, take stainless-steel water bottles. Aluminum water bottles can be lined with an epoxy-resin lining containing bisphenol-A (BPA); avoid bottles with a golden yellow coating inside.
Avoid plastic wrap and wax paper: Plastic wrap is difficult to recycle and may contain PVC, a known human carcinogen. Most wax paper is coated in paraffin wax from a petroleum base or a formaldehyde-based resin. Instead, store food in ceramic, glass or stainless-steel containers. Plastic lids don’t leach toxins into food if the product doesn’t come in contact with the lid.
Choose local and homegrown: Farm- and garden-grown produce is rarely, if ever, packaged in plastic. Whenever possible, skip the grocery store produce and opt instead for food available via your own yard, a farmers market or a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription.
At the Grocery Store
Buy in bulk: You can avoid packaging by purchasing beans, grains, nuts, cereals, pastas, spices and even personal-care products from bulk bins. Bring your own reusable cloth bags and jars. When purchasing packaged foods, opt for larger portions. Small food packages typically have more plastic packaging per serving. Avoid individually wrapped foods such as cheese, juice and yogurt. Instead, use your own reusable containers to carry smaller portions with you on the go.
Skip plastic food packaging: Many foods such as juice, nut butters, butter, sauces, spreads and eggs are available in containers made of glass, metal or cardboard. If you must buy food in plastic packaging, avoid plastics with the resin code #3 (polyvinyl chloride), #6 (polystyrene) or #7 (other) in a triangle on the bottom of the package, as they pose a greater known health risk and are difficult to recycle.
Shop from the deli counter: Meat and cheese products are typically sold in plastic, and thus the deli counter is one of the only ways to avoid it completely. Bring your own containers, or ask the butcher to wrap food in parchment paper.
Avoid canned foods: Food cans often contain a lining made of BPA (see “What Does BPA-Free Really Mean?” later in the article). A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association finds that eating canned foods dramatically increases BPA exposure. Aseptic containers (those cardboard boxes milk and juice are sometimes packaged in) are lined with polyethylene and not recyclable in all areas, so these aren’t an ideal substitute. Whenever possible, make soup and beans from scratch or buy them in glass bottles or cans that indicate a BPA-free lining such as those from Eden Foods. Some companies that market BPA-free cans don’t disclose what is used as an alternative. Eden Foods uses oleoresin, a natural mixture of oil and resin, instead of BPA. Opting for fresh fruits and vegetables can circumvent this particular problem as well.
Carry cotton or secondhand reusable bags with you: Store shopping bags in your trunk, or keep folding bags in a handbag or backpack for impromptu shopping trips. Most reusable shopping bags sold at retail stores are made of nonwoven polypropylene, which is not washable and may contain high levels of lead. Use natural fiber or secondhand bags.
Buy plastic-free produce: Use reusable cloth bags for produce (we offer reusable produce bags at the Mother Earth Living store), and look for produce not packaged in plastic. (Get tips for storing fruits and vegetables without plastic from the Berkeley Ecology Center's handy fact sheet.)
Out and About
Bring reusable containers to restaurants: Avoid disposable packaging by storing leftovers and even carryout food (if the restaurant will allow it) in your own containers. Clamshell containers are particularly concerning as they may contain polystyrene or PVC, while unbleached boxes are a cleaner and greener option. Ask for no cutlery or condiments if you can do without.
Carry your own cutlery: Plastic utensils often contain polystyrene and can leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food. Use bamboo or metal silverware whenever possible. (See Slideshow for more plastic-less product suggestions.)
Bring a cup: Plastic cups are often made of polystyrene. If you frequently stop for a coffee while on the run, keep a reusable coffee mug in the car—most baristas will gladly fill a reusable cup for you. If you’re a smoothie fan, keep a 20-ounce thermos in the trunk for your favorite blend.
Skip the straw: When out at a restaurant, you can cut back a bit on plastic consumption by skipping the straw. Have kids who love straws in their beverages? Use a reusable metal or glass straw. (See Slideshow for more plastic-less product suggestions.)
This and That
Choose natural gum alternatives: Who knew? Most chewing gum is made out of a plastic called polyvinyl acetate, manufactured using vinyl acetate, a chemical shown to cause tumors in lab rats. Instead of gum, chew on ginger chews, fennel seeds or mint leaves for fresh breath.
Rent or borrow: If you need a tool, appliance or piece of equipment for a short time, consider renting or borrowing it from a hardware store, community center or friend. Most such items contain plastics, and buying an item you rarely use increases production.
Start plants from seed: Most seedlings from nurseries come in plastic trays. Peat containers aren’t a green alternative because peat removal is harmful to ecosystems. Instead, grow garden plants from seed at home. If you do purchase plants from a nursery, ask if they will reuse plastic plant pots if returned to them.
Choose natural diapers: Disposable diapers commonly contain a polyethylene film, polyester foam, polyurethane or other synthetic materials. Either use cloth diapers or carefully select disposables with a lower plastic content. Seventh Generation makes diapers that are filled with unbleached wood pulp. Naty by Nature Babycare diapers are made with GMO-free corn and are partially biodegradable. The Honest Company offers disposable diapers free of chlorine processing, latex, phthalates, PVC and petrochemical additives, delivered via subscription service.
Responsibly dispose of electronics: It’s impossible to avoid plastics in electronics, one of the largest uses of the material. Instead, donate or sell reusable electronics, or make sure your old electronics are properly recycled. Many electronics recyclers do not responsibly recycle products, so use an e-Stewards certified recycler when possible.
What Does BPA-Free Really Mean?
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical additive in hard plastics and is widely used in water bottles, baby bottles, dental fillings, DVDs, linings in food cans and other household goods. The safety of BPA is under scrutiny because it acts as an endocrine disruptor and has been linked with reproductive disorders, heart disease, asthma, breast cancer and memory problems.
Unfortunately, BPA is not the only chemical of concern in plastics; BPA-free isn’t synonymous with safe. Studies show that most plastics, even those labeled BPA-free, leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The best way to avoid such chemicals is to keep plastic from coming into contact with food and beverages. The good news is that studies show avoiding exposure to BPA in food can cause levels in the body to drop within just a few days.
Enjoy the inspirational story of how Beth Terry dared to break the plastic habit in her book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and You Can Too, available at the Mother Earth Living store.