Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to avoid drinking from plastic as much as possible.
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 microwave safety, 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?
In the interest of baby steps, Kitchen Stewardship style, we’re going to split up plastic-avoiding goals into three parts.
Part One: Drinking Containers
Since leaching is accelerated by time and heat, that’s where you want to focus your efforts, plus the cases where you’re exposed most often. I’m pretty sure all of us drink liquids daily, often many times a day. I’m also pretty sure some of us like to keep our water cold in the fridge or freezer, or leave it hanging around while we work. Drinking glasses are a simple place to make a change, possibly without spending any money.
First Memorize the List
The plastics deemed “safer” have a recycle number on the bottom of 2 HDPE, 4 LDPE or 5 PP. Here are few mnemonics (can you tell I’m a teacher?) to help you:
- If you’re a word person, think Hoopy, Loopy, and Pee Pee for the letters.
- If rhyming does it for you — or if you’re a cheerleader from a past life — try 2, 4, 5 = “two-forty-five, stayin’ alive.”
- If you’re visual, picture your phone: 2-4-5 is a triangle of good health!
I don’t want to make it sound as though these plastics will make you healthy — they still haven’t been around for hundreds of years, so we really don’t know what they’ll do to us — but they’re the best of the bunch if you’ve gotta use plastics.
1. Just Drink With a Glass
Do you have cups made of glass in your house? Simply choose glass when you want a drink.
While you’re at it, save dishes, water, soap and the environment and use one glass all day long. Someone I know uses colored rubber bands on her family’s water glasses for the day so they can tell them apart.
When I decided plastics were simply unsafe, I looked through the cupboard (because if they’re in there, someone will use them) and decided that some old, old plastic cups without a number on the bottom had to go. I recycled them. It hurt, because I seriously hate throwing ANYthing away, but we always leave glasses of water sitting around at our house. We haven’t run out of cups since then, so I guess we don’t miss them!
Why do I risk using glass dishes with my 3-year-old? And even my two-year-old?
- It’s important for children – even young ones – to learn how to care for breakable items. The Montessori method, which I love, touts the use of real dishes and glass pitchers for their work and eating. I concur.
- I buy them at garage sales or choose those I don’t mind breaking, just in case. Mistakes/breaks are great teaching moments.
- I don’t have to worry about BPA.
- I don’t have to dry the cups after my dishwasher fails to dry the inside of little plastic cups.
2. Plastic Bottle Change-Up
Do you have a plastic water bottle that you regularly drink out of? If you’re at home, see above. If you need it to travel, search your house to see if you have something made of stainless steel or glass that has a lid (like a travel mug for coffee, often lined with stainless steel). This is especially important if your favorite bottle is an old Nalgene or other number 7 plastic, which are particularly susceptible to leaching BPA.
If you have a birthday coming up, consider adding a stainless steel water bottle to your wish list. I found one at Bed, Bath and Beyond for $10, which was $8 with the 20% off coupon. There are really high quality ones at www.kleankanteen.com and www.greenfeet.com.
Note: if you drop them or freeze them (on accident!) and they get wobbly bottoms, you can bang them (gently) back into shape with a hammer. Guess how I know that?
3. Bottled Water
If you regularly drink bottled water – like, more than just at graduation parties and the like – I’m here to ask you to reconsider.
I don’t even want to spend the time to look up how many plastic one-time-use water bottles are in the landfills, or how much money it takes to recycle them, or how much fossil fuel we waste transporting water all around the country for people to drink.
That those questions even exist is reason enough for me to figure out how to drink my own water from my tap. It’s more frugal and much more environmentally sound, and if I’m worried about plastics leaching chemicals into my body and my growing family’s body, then I’m going to skip the bottled water.
4. Other Situations
If you happen to have a habit of heating a liquid in the microwave in a plastic glass, now is the time to stop, please!
Check your pitchers that you use for juice or water to see if they’re a “safer” plastic. Don’t worry about milk jugs – not a lot of choice in that arena anyway. I have a Brita pitcher, which are said to be safe plastic, but it’s one area I’m wondering about. It’s still plastic, after all.
6. BPA-Free Sippy Cups
If you have kids who use sippy cups, see this great post at Keeper of the Home for a review of BPA-free sippy cups. I also love re-using the free cups that sit-down restaurants include with kids’ meals. They have lids, so when my son wants a straw, I choose them. All the ones I’ve found have been #5PP plastic, so I felt safe(er) using them for drinking. I stumbled across some research from Fall 2008 just recently that calls into question #5 leaching some other contaminant. So. I just won’t leave water sitting in them all day. That’s my baby step toward health and safety until I learn more about it.
For parts two and three of our plastic-avoiding goals:
More About Plastic Safety:
- A great quick resource on safe plastics: Mom Knows Best
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