The Perils of Plastic Posted on July 27, 2008, 1 Comment

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Plastic Containers

What To Look For

Plastic is the most widely used material in the United States, and it crops up in everything from toys to clothes to food containers. But not all plastics are created equal, particularly in regards to food storage: Some plastics can transmit chemicals into your food, while others are perfectly safe.

Before you know which type of plastic container to buy the next time you hit the store, you first need to know how to tell them apart. Plastics are typically classified by a number from #1 to #7, each number representing a different type of resin. That number is usually imprinted on the bottom of your container; flip it upside down, and you'll see a recycling triangle with the number in the middle.

Here's a quick breakdown of plastic resin types:

#1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE)
Product examples: Disposable soft drink and water bottles, cough-syrup bottles

#2 high density polyethylene (HDPE)/
Product examples: Milk jugs, toys, liquid detergent bottles, shampoo bottles

#3 polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC)
Product examples: Meat wrap, cooking oil bottles, plumbing pipes

#4 low density polyethylene (LDPE)
Product examples: Cling wrap, grocery bags, sandwich bags

#5 polypropylene (PP)
Product examples: Syrup bottles, yogurt cups/tubs, diapers

#6 polystyrene (PS)
Product examples: Disposable coffee cups, clam-shell take-out containers

#7 other (misc.; usually polycarbonate, or PC, but also polylactide, or PLA, plastics made from renewable resources)
Product examples: Baby bottles, some reusable water bottles, stain-resistant food-storage containers, medical storage containers

Now that you know what each of the numbers represents, here are the kinds you should look for at the store:

Safer Plastics

#2HDPE, #4LDPE and #5PP

These three types of plastic are the healthiest. They transmit no known chemicals into your food and they're generally recyclable; #2 is very commonly accepted by municipal recycling programs, but you may have a more difficult time finding someone to recycle your #4 and #5 containers.

#1 PET

#1 bottles and containers are fine for single use and are widely accepted by municipal recyclers. You won't find many reusable containers made from #1, but they do exist. It's also best to avoid reusing #1 plastic bottles; water and soda bottles in particular are hard to clean, and because plastic is porous, these bottles absorb flavors and bacteria that you can't get rid of.

PLA

PLA (polylactide) plastics are made from renewable resources such as corn, potatoes and sugar cane and anything else with a high starch content. The starch is converted into polylactide acid (PLA). Although you can't recycle these plant-based plastics, you can compost them in a municipal composter or in your backyard compost heap. Most decompose in about twelve days unlike conventional plastic, which can take up to 100 years.

Plastics to Avoid

#3 PVC

#3 polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is often used frequently in cling wraps for meat. However, PVC contains softeners called phthalates that interfere with hormonal development, and its manufacture and incineration release dioxin, a potent carcinogen and hormone disruptor. Vinyl chloride, the primary building block of PVC, is a known human carcinogen that also poses a threat to workers during manufacture.

#6 PS

Extruded polystyrene (#6 PS; commonly known as Styrofoam) is used in take-out containers and cups, and non-extruded PS is used in clear disposable takeout containers, disposable plastic cutlery and cups. Both forms of PS can leach styrene into food; styrene is considered a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It may also disrupt hormones or affect reproduction.

#7 PC

#7 Polycarbonate (PC) is found in baby bottles, 5-gallon water bottles, water-cooler bottles and the epoxy linings of tin food cans. PC is composed of a hormone-disrupting chemical called bisphenol A, which has been linked to a wide variety of problems such as cancer and obesity.

Read more about the problems with #3, #6 and #7 plastics in The Backstory.

Safe Use Tips

-When purchasing cling-wrapped food from the supermarket or deli, slice off a thin layer where the food came into contact with the plastic and store the rest in a glass or ceramic container or wrap it in non-PVC cling wrap (see Product Comparisons).

-Avoid storing fatty foods, such as meat and cheese, in plastic containers or plastic wrap.

-Hand-wash reusable containers gently with a nonabrasive soap; dishwashers and harsh detergents can scratch plastic, making hospitable homes for bacteria.

Microwaves

-A "microwave-safe" or "microwavable" label on a plastic container only means that it shouldn't melt, crack or fall apart when used in the microwave. The label is no guarantee that containers don't leach chemicals into foods when heated.

-It's best to remove food from plastic containers or wraps and instead microwave the food in glass or ceramic containers.

-The FDA advises placing microwave-safe plastic wrap loosely over food so that the steam can escape. Plastic wrap should not directly touch your food.

-The USDA warns on its website against microwaving in single-use containers not intended for cooking, such as takeout platters or margarine tubs.

-Never use plastic storage bags, grocery bags, newspapers or aluminum foil in the microwave.

Reducing Your Use of Plastic

We could all do with a little less plastic in our lives, no matter the type of resin. All plastics are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource, and produced under extremely energy-intensive conditions, so here are a few things to keep in mind when shopping:

-Always opt for plastic containers that are accepted for recycling in your area.

-Avoid single-use, non-recyclable disposable packaging, such as Styrofoam meat trays, and clam-shell containers.

-Buy food in glass or metal containers

-Bring your own containers to restaurants, if you suspect you might have leftovers.

-If you do get takeout you'll be eating at home, don't take plastic cutlery or condiment packets.

-Avoid plastic cooking tools; use stainless steel or wooden utensils instead.

-Replace your plastic cutting boards with wood. You can spray wooden boards with a mist of vinegar, then with a mix of hydrogen peroxide, to kill bacteria.

-Take your plastic grocery bags to a local Wal-Mart or Whole Foods to be recycled.

The Extra Step:

Write a letter to manufacturers of foods and drinks packaged in unsafe #3, #6 or #7 plastics, and tell them you want products packaged in safe, reusable glass, metal or recycled plastic. You can find a mailing address on their products, by calling their toll-free question/comment line or on their website. And don't stop at the grocery store. Call the owners of your favorite coffee shop, restaurant or cafe and ask them to improve their policies for reusable containers. Some food-service joints fear reprimands from the local Health Department by allowing customers to use their own containers for takeout or for coffee. Find out your health department's stance on the issue and encourage restaurants to be more lenient in their policies.

Product Comparisons

Below is a table of plastic containers made from safer #2, #4 and #5 plastics organized by intended purpose (column 3). To learn why these plastics are better see What To Look For.

Bisphenol A-free baby bottles and children's dishes are now in our Baby Bottles Buying Guide.

Name TYPE OF PLASTIC PURPOSE MSRP Purchasing Information Reader Rating
Glad Freezer Bags #4 LDPE Bags $2.29 store.drsoda.com Avg. Rating
Glad Sandwich Bags #4 LDPE Bags $2.29 store.drsoda.com Avg. Rating
Hefty Baggies #4 LDPE Bags $6.95-$12.95 www.shophometrends.com, 888-815-0814 Avg. Rating
Hefty OneZip Slider Bags (Gallon Size) #4 LDPE Bags $2.99 www.walgreens.com Avg. Rating
Ziploc Freezer Bags #4 LDPE Bags $4.39/30 www.drugstore.com Avg. Rating
Ziploc Sandwich Bags #4 LDPE Bags $3.29/100 www.drugstore.com Avg. Rating
Glad Cling Wrap #4 LDPE Cling Wrap $2.99 www.walgreens.com Avg. Rating
Glad Press’n Seal Sealing Wrap #4 LDPE Cling Wrap $5.99 www.drugstore.com Avg. Rating
Saran Cling Plus #4 LDPE Cling Wrap $2.69 www.drugstore.com Avg. Rating
Ziploc Containers (all) #5 PP Cooking/Baking $3.29-$3.53 www.drugstore.com Avg. Rating
Arrow Colored Measuring Cups #5 PP Cooking/Baking $3.29/5-pc. set www.amazon.com Avg. Rating
Farberware 9-cup Marinade Dishes #5 PP Cooking/Baking $5.99 www.fryeintl.com, 866-573-3793 Avg. Rating
OXO Folding Cutting Boards #5 PP Cooking/Baking $14.99 www.oxo.com, 800-545-4411 Avg. Rating
Tupperware Double Colanders #5 PP Cooking/Baking $20 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Tupperware Measuring Cups and Spoons #5 PP Cooking/Baking $12.50-$15.50 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Impact Stackrack Jug 5 Gal. #2 HDPE Drinks $2.99 www.walgreens.com Avg. Rating
Nalgene 16-oz. HDPE Loop-Top Bottles #2 HDPE Drinks $4.53 www.nalgene-outdoor.com, 800-625-4327 Avg. Rating
Nat-UR Harvest Collection Cups PLA Drinks $24/50 www.nat-urstore.com Avg. Rating
Playtex Spill-Proof Cups (lids #2) #5 PP Drinks $6.99 www.drugstore.com Avg. Rating
Playtex Straw Cups #2 HDPE Drinks $4.85 www.playtexstore.com, 800-249-0832 Avg. Rating
Rubbermaid 2-qt. Servin' Saver Mixing Pitcher #5 PP Drinks $5.99 www.amazon.com Avg. Rating
Rubbermaid 3-gal Insulated Beverage Containers and Dispensers #2 HDPE Drinks $28.95 www.akitchen.com, 888-388-9641 Avg. Rating
Rubbermaid 8.5 oz Litterless Juice Boxes #5 PP Drinks $2.99 www.containerstore.com, 888-CONTAIN Avg. Rating
Rubbermaid Chug Sport Bottles #5 PP Drinks $4.20 www.amazon.com Avg. Rating
Rubbermaid Gallon Covered Pitchers #5 PP Drinks $5.29 www.amazon.com Avg. Rating
Rubbermaid Sipper Seal #5 PP Drinks $5.99 www.amazon.com Avg. Rating
Rubbermaid Sippin’ Sport Bottles #5 PP Drinks $5.49 www.amazon.com Avg. Rating
Soma Fabrications 22-oz Water Bottles #5 PP Drinks $7.99 www.somafab.com Avg. Rating
Sterilite Plastic Tumbler #5 PP Drinks $0.50 www.amazon.com Avg. Rating
Sterilite Ultraseal Pitchers #5 PP Drinks $2.21-$3.99 www.amazon.com Avg. Rating
Tupperware Mickey Ice Tups Set #2 HDPE Drinks $19.50 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Carlisle Store 'N Pour Gallon #2 HDPE Food Storage $5.60 www.carlislefsp.com Avg. Rating
Farberware 10-piece Mini-Fridge Kits #5 PP Food Storage $17.99 www.fryeintl.com, 866-573-3793 Avg. Rating
Farberware 23-piece Azure Blue Sets #5 PP Food Storage $19.99 www.fryeintl.com, 866-573-3793 Avg. Rating
GladWare Containers and Lids (all sizes) #5 PP Food Storage $3.49-$5.59 www.drugstore.com Avg. Rating
Plastic Hinged Locking-Lid Containers PLA Food Storage $8.50/50 www.greenearthofficesupply.com, 800-327-8449 Avg. Rating
Rubbermaid (all food storage containers) #5 PP Food Storage $5.99-$10.99 www.drugstore.com Avg. Rating
Sterilite 8 Piece Covered Bowl Set #5 PP Food Storage $6.29 www.amazon.com Avg. Rating
The Container Store Rectangular Klip-It Food Storage #5 PP Food Storage $2.49-$12.99 www.containerstore.com, 888-CONTAIN Avg. Rating
The Container Store Smart Flap Food Storage Rectangles #5 PP Food Storage $4.49-$4.99 www.containerstore.com, 888-CONTAIN Avg. Rating
The Container Store Tellfresh Oblong Food Storage #5 PP Food Storage $1.99-$5.49 www.containerstore.com, 888-CONTAIN Avg. Rating
The Container Store Tellfresh Screw-Top Food Storage #5 PP Food Storage $2.49-$3.49 www.containerstore.com, 888-CONTAIN Avg. Rating
The Container Store Tellfresh Snack Box #5 PP Food Storage $5.99 www.containerstore.com, 888-CONTAIN Avg. Rating
Tupperware Bowls (all) #5 PP Food Storage -- www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Tupperware Fridge Stackables Sets #5 PP Food Storage $17 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Tupperware FridgeSmart Containers #2 HDPE Food Storage $12-$26 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Tupperware Modular Mates #5 PP Food Storage $9.00 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Tupperware One Touch Reminder Canister #5 PP Food Storage $39.50/4 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Tupperware Prep Essentials Cold Cut Keepers #5 PP Food Storage $23 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Tupperware Quick Shake Containers #5 PP Food Storage $11 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating
Tupperware Spin ’N Save Salad Spinners #5 PP Food Storage $42 www.tupperware.com, 800-366-3800 Avg. Rating

The Backstory

While plastic food wraps and containers play an important role in protecting us against the dangers of foodborne illnesses, recent studies show that when certain plastics come into contact with foods, some questionable chemicals migrate from the packaging to the foods they contain. In addition, because of the chemicals used during the manufacturing process, plastic poses threats to our environment and to the health of the workers who produce it.

Environmental Issues

Pollution

Considering that plastics are made from non-renewable petroleum and natural gas, it's not surprising to know that plastic manufacturing is a major source of industrial pollution. Producing a 16-oz. #1 PET bottle, for instance, generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of glass.

The Berkeley Plastics Task Force stated in a 1996 report that the plastic industry contributed 14 percent of the most toxic industrial releases--including styrene, benzene and trichloroethane--into the air. Other major emissions from plastic production processes include sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides (both of which contribute to global warming), methanol, ethylene oxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Plastics Are Forever

When the plastics we throw away escape from garbage trucks or landfills, they get blown into trees and waterways where they're eaten by animals that mistake them for food. In the North Pacific, a floating island of plastic waste the size of Texas has accumulated, doubling in size over the past six years. Some estimates place the load of plastic floating in that area, killing both birds and aquatic life, at 3 million tons.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that nothing in nature, not even sunlight and oxygen, can break apart the bonds that hold plastic together, so they linger on our planet indefinitely. Rather than biodegrading, plastic photodegrades into dust, winding up in soil and in the air. In bodies of water, the plastic particles become a kind of toxic sponge, absorbing other harmful chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the pesticide DDT. Those particles then get eaten by fish, which wind up back on our dinner plates.

Recycling

Despite the problems with plastic, virtually all types can be recycled and used a few times before losing integrity (when the material has become too weak to recycle any more). However, confusing municipal recycling laws and limited access to recyclers who accept all types of plastic have kept recycling rates low and the amount of plastic waste in landfills high--and getting higher. In 2006, a mere 6.9 percent of plastic garbage we generated was recycled.

On a positive note, more stores are beginning to accept plastic bags for recycling, and other companies are offering to take back used plastic products. For instance, Styrofoam packing peanuts can be taken to any UPS store for reuse, and Stonyfield Farm accepts all its #5 PP yogurt cups and tubs back, reselling them to Preserve, a company that manufactures toothbrushes and reusable plastic dishes from the discarded cups.

Personal Health Issues

Dioxins

Dioxins, which are highly toxic even at low doses, are produced when #3 PVC plastics are manufactured and incinerated. The EPA estimates that the average American's risk of contracting cancer from dioxin exposure may be as high as one in 1,000--1,000 times higher than the government's current "acceptable" standard of one in a million. Dioxins are also endocrine disruptors, substances that can interfere with the body's natural hormone signals, and they can damage the immune system and may affect reproduction and childhood development. Furthermore, dioxins build up in animal fat, and we may be exposed to them when drinking fatty meats, whole milk or full-fat yogurt.

Phthalates

Most cling-wrapped meats, cheeses and other foods sold in delis and grocery stores are wrapped in PVC. To soften #3 PVC plastic into its flexible form, manufacturers add "plasticizers" during production. Traces of these chemicals, known as adipates and phthalates, can leak out of PVC when it comes in contact with foods, especially hot, fatty foods. Adipates and phthalates have been shown to cause birth defects and damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive systems in mice.

One phthalate, di-2-ehtylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen, according to a 2000 National Institutes of Health (NIH) report. Phthalates are also suspected of interfering with hormones and the reproductive development of baby boys.

Bisphenol A

Many #7 polycarbonate bottles (including baby bottles), microwave ovenware, eating utensils and plastic coatings for metal cans are made with bisphenol A (BPA). Many studies have found that BPA interferes with hormones, as phthalates do, and a March 1998 study in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) found that BPA simulates the action of estrogen when tested in human breast cancer cells.

A growing number of scientists are concluding, from animal tests, that exposure to BPA in the womb raises the risk of certain cancers, hampers fertility and could contribute to childhood behavioral problems such as hyperactivity. A January 2006 EHP study on mice indicated that BPA alters the function of mouse pancreatic cells, which produce insulin, suggesting that the chemical may enhance the risk of developing Type II diabetes. Finally, an early 2007 study on BPA in rats found that it led to increased growth, suggesting that the chemical might trigger obesity.

Antimony

Not as dire a concern as BPA or phthalates, the heavy metal antimony has been found to leach out of #1 PET plastic water bottles that have been sitting on a shelf for long periods of time. High levels of antimony can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but the amount in water from a PET bottle will likely be low enough to not cause such effects. However, it's still a good idea to not reuse #1 PET bottles to avoid any potential antimony exposure.

Related Articles

From the Green Guide:

"How to Handle Vinyl," www.thegreenguide.com/doc/121/vinyl

"How Safe are the New Green Plastics?" www.thegreenguide.com/doc/100/plasticsja

"Plastics Graduate to Green," www.thegreenguide.com/doc/114/pla

From Outside Sources:

Abraham, Kera. "Drowning in Plastic: Every bit of plastic ever made is still with us--and it's wreaking havoc on the ocean," Monterey County Weekly, June 14, 2007. www.montereycountyweekly.com.

Ecology Center, "1996 Report of the Berkeley Plastics Task Force," www.ecologycenter.org.

"Food for Thought: What's Coming Out of Baby's Bottle?", Science News, www.sciencenews.org.

Our Stolen Future,"New Science: Uses of Bisphenol A," www.ourstolenfuture.org.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Plastics and the Microwave," FDA Consumer, November/December 2002, www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fdacplas.html.