Food for Thought: Plastic Safety for People and Earth

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One way to be both healthy in body AND good to the environment in the kitchen is to make sure the materials you’re using aren’t dangerous to either.

There’s a lot of buzz about plastics lately, mostly focusing on BPA, or Bisphenol A. My general theory is that if there’s a question about something’s safety, and it’s easy and frugal to make a change away from that item, I should do it. I’ve been working hard to move away from plastics and safely use the plastics I have left. Here are some of the background facts:

What is BPA?

Bisphenol A is a chemical used to make some plastics. It may be an endocrine disruptor, which means it acts like hormones in a human’s system. “More than 100 studies have been published “rais[ing] health concerns” about the chemical (from Wikipedia).”  It’s possible that it’s carcinogenic, a term you’ll see around a lot. Read it as “cancer causing“. Big bummer. It’s possible that BPA may cause breast cancer. It’s possible that BPA may cause signs of early puberty. It’s possible that BPA may lower sperm count. Anyone notice any of that around our world?

There isn’t conclusive proof that BPA is toxic, and the government still thinks there are acceptable levels. However…anything that messes with our hormones is not something I want to expose my children to. I look around and see rampant infertility, cancer, sexual disfunction and disorder, and I wonder why. If I can avoid something as easy as a plastic water bottle, I’m going to. It’s just a small step:  over 90% of the general population carries residues of BPA in their bodies.

What do microwaves do to plastics?

The way BPA (and other random chemicals in our containers) gets into our bodies is by leaching out of the plastic into our foods. Time and heat accelerate leaching, possibly up to 55 times as fast. FDA science policy analyst Catherine Bailey says “When you microwave, it’s a good idea not to have the plastic touch the food.” For more on the microwave, click here.

What plastics are safe for food?

The good news is that not all plastics have BPA in them. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Evil:  #3, 6 and some 7 (#7 means “other” so there’s a wide range, but better safe than sorry)
  • Better…maybe: #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE, #5PP (This has been the standard “safe list” for a few years. Recent research is raising questions even here.)
  • Basic plastic water bottles are generally #1. They are for one-time use only. The safety is questionable.

Most plastic food storage containers (Ziploc, Gladware, etc.) and cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt tubs are #5PP, as are the plastic cups for kids at restaurants. Sippy cups and bottles are all over the place. Brita pitchers, which do not have a recycle number on the bottom, are deemed safe by Simple Steps.

How long does it take plastic to biodegrade?

Here’s something to chew on:  both glass and plastic take a long time to biodegrade. One million years for glass and “forever” for plastic, a nominal difference. I don’t like to throw away either if possible. But which one breaks and/or is thrown out more often when used as food storage?

Plastic Monday Missions:
Don’t Drink BPA
Rethink Storage Containers
Targeting Plastic Bags

A great quick resource on safe plastics: Mom Knows Best

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