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.
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.
■ 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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