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.

| March/April 2011

kitchen shelf

Avoid plastic by buying and storing food in glass containers.

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... 

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):

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.

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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