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Why you should avoid plastics

Plastics are widely used to store and package foods and beverages, Uses include disposable and reusable containers, plastic wraps, cutlery and water bottles. Plastic is convenient, lightweight, unbreakable and relatively inexpensive. However, there are both environmental and health risks from the widespread use of plastic. Most plastics are made from petroleum, a non-renewable and mostly imported resource. Plastic packaging also creates unnecessary waste. Although plastic is lightweight, it is bulky, so it takes up a large volume of landfill space. Use of plastics in cooking and food storage can carry health risks, especially when hormone-disrupting chemicals from some plastics leach into foods and beverages. Plastic manufacturing and incineration creates air and water pollution and exposes workers to toxic chemicals.

The Best and the Worst

Greenpeace has a helpful list of what plastics are the best and worst, and why. Biopolymers are the best, followed by polyolefins (PE/PP/HDPE) second, PET third, ABS / polycarbonate / polyurethane / polystyrene fourth, and PVC worst. Here are the details, from their site and others who have written about this:

  • Biopolymers (called "bio-" because they are made from plant cellulose or starch, not petroleum) usually use the least toxic ingredients, do not release toxic gases or other substances into the environment during the product's life, and certainly use the least fossil fuels for their manufacture. Some biopolymers are compostable.
  • Polyolefins (PE, HDPE, LDPE are all polyethylene, PP is polypropylene) are the best petroleum-based plastics because they use fewer toxic chemicals than other plastics. They're also very widely recycled (recycling codes #2, #4, and #5.)
  • PET / PETE (polyethylene-terephthalate; in clothes it's called polyester) is not as good as simple polyethylene because more additives are put into it (usually UV stabilizers and flame retardants), but it's still widely recycled (recycling code #1).
  • ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) and Polycarbonate (PC) are what almost all consumer electronic device cases are made out of–computers, cell phones, MP3 players, you name it. Some are just ABS or PC, most are a blend of the two. The ingredients for both ABS and polycarbonate are suspected to be carcinogenic, some are also mutagenic; polycarbonates use nasty solvents in its manufacture. They are both perfectly recyclable but are rarely recycled in municipal systems because they fall into recycling code #7, "other". Polystyrene (PS) has carcinogenic ingredients like ABS (both contain styrene), but is also damages human reproductive systems. It's also recyclable but not often recycled (recycling code #6).
  • PVC (polyvinyl chloride), uses more toxic ingredients for its manufacture, because in addition to carcinogens like vinyl chloride it also requires plasticizers to be flexible, these plasticizers are more toxic than the base plastic itself. Besides the manufacturing hazards, dioxin and other toxins like DEHP (a plasticizer connected to reproductive illness) outgas, leach, and flakes fall off PVCs during its use in your home; when thrown away, these chemicals also leach into groundwater in landfills. This is why they are the worst on the list. They can be recycled (recycling code #3), but rates are generally low. The good news is they were never in consideration for our product anyway.

Environmental hormones

Plastics are nearly unavoidable in modern living, but can have serious health effects. Plastics and polystyrene (Styrofoam) are used worldwide to pack food. These plastic and polystyrene containers contain compounds known as environmental hormones or endocrine disruptors that often leach out into food. This leaching process is expedited at higher temperatures, i.e., while the food is hot. Moreover, these compounds can be stored in the body's fatty tissues where they can readily accumulate.

The simplest definition of an environmental hormone is that it is a compound that has hormonelike activity; hence, it adversely affects the endocrine system and consequently alters the development and/or reproduction of organisms, including humans.

These compounds can act in various ways, however, most share the following modes of action: (1) they can recognize the binding sites of natural hormones thereby mimicking their effects; (2) they can block the interaction of natural hormones with their binding sites; (3) they can react directly or indirectly with hormones; (4) they can alter the natural pattern of synthesis of hormones; and, (5) they can alter hormone receptor levels. (The simplest definition of a hormone is that it is a substance that regulates growth and development.)

Plastics contain xenoestrogens which can have devastating effects on your body's estrogen receptors. Plastic containers, plastic food wrap, plastic soda bottles, and other plastics such as styrofoam and vinyl products, can release chemical toxins into your food merely by the fact that the plastic has touched the food, or by microwaving in containers that have not been produced to withstand the extreme heat of a microwave oven. Never reuse butter or margarine containers, or containers that other foods such as nondairy whipped toppings come in to microwave foods. These containers are not manufactured to withstand the high heats of microwaving. Microwaving in such containers causes a chemical breakdown and releases toxic chemicals into your food.

Of course not everyone responds the same way to each of these chemicals. Various factors play a key role in determining who is adversely affected, and which of us are not susceptible to the consequences caused by environmental toxins. These factors include age, gender, our location, and the overall state of our health.

Dioxin in paper and chemicals in plastics can migrate into food. For example, everyone knows the taste of plastic found in plastic- bottled water that has been left in the sun. One should go to extremes to eliminate the circumstances that can cause such migrations of chemicals into food because some plastics can disrupt hormones.

Ways to reduce exposure to plastics toxins

  • Avoid disposable plastic packages and opt for storage containers like glass that can be reused.
  • Buy food in glass or paper containers or transfer to these containers shortly after purchase.
  • Don't microwave or heat food in plastic containers.
  • Avoid storing fatty foods, such as meat, oil, and cheese, in plastic containers or plastic wrap and don't buy fatty foods in plastic if at all possible.
  • Avoid storing acidic foods in plastic like tomatoes or citrus as those tend to draw out the plastic poisons much like fats.
  • Avoid storing liquids and water in plastic as those are great transporters and will help the plastic leach into the liquid.
  • Don't drink the water if it tastes like plastic; plastic is sure to have leached into the drink if it does.
  • Don't drink from an outdoor hose; the plastic is not food grade or safe and the harm is compounded since the hose is heated causing these chemicals to easily enter into the water that flows from the hose.
  • Instead of relying upon the establishment for their containers, bring your own glass bowls to salad bars or bring your own paper cups to yogurt shops. Ask that they use your container instead of the plastic one offered for environmental and health reasons and educate others at the same time!
  • Instead of plastic forks, sporks, spoons and knives, use the real thing. Use stainless steel or wooden utensils over plastic especially when cooking or heating food as well as when eating heated foods. Offer these to guests and children and even opt for the real thing in lunch boxes. Choose plastic made of corn that is compostable or opt for recycled paper products.
  • Use wood instead of plastic cutting boards. Use separate boards for uncooked poultry, vegetables, uncooked meats, fruit, and cooked meats. To disinfect, there are plenty of more environmentally sound products but spraying first with vinegar and then with hydrogen peroxide should kill bacteria just as well. Then rinse well and store dry.
  • Remember that the plastic wrap used in the supermarket will leach into the foods wrapped in them. Try to get foods wrapped in paper instead or if not available and they use plastic, slice off a thin layer where the food came into contact with the plastic as soon as you get home and store in a safer container (like glass, parchment, ceramic, or a safer non-PVC cling wrap.)
  • Buy containers in glass or paper whenever possible. Read the bottom and refuse to buy anything packaged in the worst plastics: 3, 6, and 7. Write to the manufacturers that use plastic, especially the ones using the worst ones, and share your concern and information and tell them that you are choosing products based upon packaging as well as quality.

Ways to Avoid Packaging Toxins

  • Plastic tends to migrate into fatty foods, especially hot fatty foods. Don't leave cheese wrapped in its plastic wrapper sitting in the sun! Cool leftovers before placing in plastic storage containers.
  • Plastic wrap should never come into direct contact with fatty food in the microwave. It is also important not to use leftover margarine or yogurt tubs in the microwave. Use ceramic or glass cookware instead.
  • Microwavable packages should be avoided. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) migrates from the packaging into the food, as do the adhesive components (and their degraded products) of the package.
  • A 1988 FDA study of microwavable packaging components, called heat susceptors, showed that low levels of the carcinogen benzene could migrate into food when heated.
  • Skip the boil-in-a-plastic bag foods, as well as sous vide foods--foods that are vacuum packed.* When you can, replace plastic cups and other eating utensils that come into contact with hot fatty foods with glass or metal. For example, instead of buying a plastic thermos, consider a metal one.
  • As much as possible, avoid food, water, and other beverages sold in plastic containers and bottles. For example, try to buy water from distributors who can deliver large glass jugs in convenient dispensers.
  • Package components can migrate into wet food, especially if the food contains alcohol, acid, or fat.
  • Use substitutes for bleached paper products that can come in contact with food, such as gold coffee filters and glass bottles.* Avoid packaging with antioxidant preservatives such as BHT, an additive with a questionable safety record.
  • Avoid buying imported food in cans sealed by soldering. The soldering may contain lead. Lead-soldered cans are bumpy feeling under the seam, as opposed to seamless or welded cans.
  • Many cans have plastic coatings that line the inside of the can out of concern that the metal might contaminate the food. Eighty-five percent of the cans sold in the United States have such linings, and the plastic coating leaches substances into the food, which can disrupt the hormonal system, according too Our Stolen Future. When you buy the cans there is no way to tell which cans are lined with plastic and which aren't.