Last time we talked plastics, I challenged you to start with drinking containers: glasses, water bottles, and bottled water. Now it’s time to move on to food storage.
Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to begin phasing out your plastic food storage containers.
You can’t do much about the fact that you have to buy things like milk and cottage cheese in plastic (nos. 2 and 5 respectively, safer plastics), never mind all the plastic bags that food is stored in (no. 4, another safer option). But once you get home and make a wholesome meal, is it really worth it to put it in a plastic container? Need to be reminded of the hazards of plastics?
In case you need more convincing, I came across a quote about BPA last week in Dinner Diaries by Betsy Block: “Few chemicals have been found to consistently display such a diverse range of harm at such low doses.” (from EWG, March 2007) Good grief.
Investigating the Use of BPA in Food Storage Containers
Sarah at Tales of a Hummingbird emailed the Ziploc company with some surprising results. I was under the impression that all plastic storage bags were no. 4 plastic, generally deemed safe(er) without BPA. Here’s the scoop:
The following bags are recyclable under the plastic recycling number four:
- Ziploc® Brand Freezer and Storage Bags
- Ziploc® Brand Snack and Sandwich Bags
- Ziploc® Brand evolve™ Bags
- Ziploc® Brand Fresh Produce Bags
The following bags are recyclable under the plastic recycling number seven:
- Ziploc® Brand Easy Zipper Bags
- Ziploc® Brand Zip ‘n Steam™ Bags
- Ziploc® Brand Vacuum Freezer Bags
Number seven often included BPA. What???
And here is the latest FDA update on BPA, from January 2010.
Here’s what Beth Terry of My Plastic-Free Life has to say:
When I started my blog, one of the rules I made for myself was not to buy any new plastic. But I also didn’t want to waste the plastic I already had. I continued to use plastic food containers, for example, because I figured as long as they were already in my kitchen, I might as well make use of them.
I don’t do that anymore.
Plastic Food Containers: Not So Great, Actually
So what’s wrong with eating and drinking from or storing food in plastic containers?
- BPA: Some plastics are made from toxic ingredients. For example, hard polycarbonate plastic (#7 plastic) (the kind that some baby bottles, reusable drinking bottles, and 5-gallon water bottles are made from) contain Bisphenol-A (BPA), which is an endocrine disruptor that builds up in our bodies over time. Low doses may cause chronic toxicity in humans, posing the highest risk to pregant women, infants, and young children. BPA can leach from plastics into the food and beverages we consume. Read more about BPA here. And also here.
- Phthalates: Phthalates are found in soft plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC, #3 plastic). Phthalates are used to make rigid plastics soft and pliable, and because they are not chemically bound to PVC, they can easily leach into food. Phthalates disrupt the endocrine system. They can cause harm to the reproductive systems of babies and children, and some studies also link phthalates to liver cancer. Read more about PVC/phthalates here.
- Antimony: Antimony is a catalyst used in making PET plastic (#1), the type of plastic that disposable water bottles and other beverage containers are made from. It’s not clear whether or not antimony poses cancer risks. But studies have found that the chemical may leach from the plastic. Read more about antimony in plastics here.
- Antibacterials: Recently, antibacterial additives were found to leach out of polypropylene plastic (PP #5) containers, the kind that most of our durable food storage containers are made from. Polypropylene has long been considered a safe, BPA-free plastic. And yet with this new discovery, it’s clear that all plastics can leach chemicals. Read more about antibacterial additives in “safe” plastics.
- NO Plastic is Safe: The conclusion is that as far as we know, no plastic is safe to eat or drink from. Consumers have no way of knowing what chemicals have been added to the plastics that contain our foods, beverages, or personal care products, because manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they add to the plastics. Read more about organic food in plastic packaging here.
Think about it this way: Many of us buy organic food to ensure we are not ingesting toxic chemicals. And we demand that the label list all of the ingredients in our foods so we can make smarter choices. But there is no label for the chemicals in the plastic container that holds our organic food. How smart is that?
Getting the Plastic Out
Choose Your Mission Level:
- Throw away, recycle or repurpose orphan containers and lids (unless you’re already flying with Flylady, you know they’re in there!) Here are some tips to reuse plasticware for non-food purposes. You could donate usable plastics, but not dangerously damaged ones.
- Get the dangerous stuff out – no. 3, 6 and 7 plastics, damaged containers from microwave use, etc. It’s go time. If it’s cracked, gouged, melted or otherwise all messed up, cut your losses. Plastic isn’t so good for you.
- Consider what you really need to function as a household. I have been surprised that although I’ve missed a few things that I boxed up to “stage” the house to sell, I haven’t wanted for much. Chances are if you get rid of some plastic, you’ll never miss it. How much does your family really need at one time to store food? Join me in striving for simplicity.
- Get some lovely glass containers with lids to replace some of your plastics. There are a lot of advantages to glass storage containers, and you may soon find that you require even fewer plastic containers. At the very least, you can put glass containers on your wish list for the next gift-giving holiday, or even a Klean Kanteen water bottle. These are a bit pricey, but I’ve seen them for just a few dollars at Walgreen’s. Just make sure they’re made of stainless steel, not aluminum. Even cheaper? FREE. Wash and reuse every single glass jar that your food comes in: spaghetti sauce, olives, soy sauce, everything. I love free. 🙂
Baby Steps to SafER Plastic Containers
I understand if you just don’t have enough glass containers or room in your budget to make this switch. Just do what you can with the steps above, and follow the guidelines below for the times you still use plastic (my plastic container cupboard is still full and in use, if you’re wondering. We live in a baby steps household!).
- Look at the recycle numbers on all your plastic containers. You must at least recycle or repurpose for non-food uses anything with number 3, 6 or 7 on it. (See this post for a mnemonic to help you remember the safe plastics.) I didn’t think #3 was actually used for anything until after my last plastics post, when I glanced at the bottom of my big container that I (used to) store biscuit mix in. Number 3!? Yikes! That container is now my compost catcher next to my sink…
- Be cognizant of what you’re putting into your plastics:
- Avoid putting steaming hot food into plastic. This is where you prioritize for glass dishes or at least wait until the food cools considerably.
- It would make sense that liquid foods (soups, sauces, beverages) would have more surface area touching the inexorable plastic container than, say, cut lettuce, rolls, or shredded cheese. I prioritize liquid and tomato-based meals to go into the glass dishes and settle for loose solid items in plastic.
- Be careful what you do with plastic containers filled with food: No microwaving your plastics! If I didn’t convince you to cut down on microwave use in general, at least make a firm commitment NEVER to microwave anything in plastic, ESPECIALLY those not made for mics like margarine tubs and plastic wrap. You’re just asking for trouble there.
Plastic Reduction FAQs
- How do you (politely) stop others from giving you plastic? For a few years now, I’ve prefaced our kids’ birthday wish lists with “less plastic, more wood; fewer batteries and buttons, more imagination and child-driven toys.” I wish I could say it works!One Christmas, we complained so much about all the battery-powered toys we had around the house that instead of getting our kids toys without batteries, my in-laws got us a bunch of batteries! They misunderstood our grief and thought we were frustrated with the monetary cost of batteries.You just have to keep trying, keep relationships very respectful, and throw out little teachable moments when you can fit them in without hurting anyone’s feelings.
And if the plastic-giving relatives are far away? You return the gifts for wooden toys and fingerpaints. That was my M.O. two years ago! 😉
- How do you freeze things without plastic? Beth Terry would use stainless steel and glass storage, including I’m sure the “free” glass jars you get from reclaiming store spaghetti sauce jars and the like. Personally, I have plenty of plastic in my freezers. My space is so limited that I couldn’t survive without plastic bags.I store almost all of my broth in glass jars and never put hot foods into plastic. All my frozen fruit, bread dough, cookies and meat are in plastic, though (the meat comes that way from the farm). When I bought store meat, I tried hard to get it from the counter in freezer paper instead of on a styrofoam tray, though.I also wrote a letter to my grocery store’s product department asking them to use bags instead of styrofoam trays for their reduced produce section. I don’t know if it was me, but they just switched! At least I can reuse the plastic bags for other produce purchases. You can find a copy of that letter, which also requests a reduce produce section if you don’t have one, at the Reduced Produce Primer.
- Does the plastic still leach if the food is cold when put into the plastic? Heat accelerates leaching, according to current research. Although we’re always learning more about the ways things we created work, cold storage in plastic should not be as much of a concern as hot applications.
- Has anyone found a way to avoid the plastic bottle nipples and sippy cup spouts? Watch for silicone, at least for bottle nipples. The glass bottle from LWP and the stainless steel that Beth gave away last week both fit the bill.
- Since plastic apparently lines disposable coffee cups, does that mean it lines milk cartons too? If so, how do I reduce my plastic consumption while still purchasing milk, which comes in either plastic jugs or plastic-lined cartons? Beth gave up milk and puts water on her cereal. I won’t advocate that you join her, but you could join me: we get raw milk from a farm and reuse the gallon glass jars every week.
- I need to find a 100% stainless – no plastic – to go coffee mug. If you have suggestions, let me know!
Resources for What to Use Instead of Plastic Food Storage Containers
Although glass and stainless steel are great replacements for plastic containers, many people are concerned about how to avoid plastic zippered bags and plastic wrap. Here are some resources for viable alternatives:
- Collection of bento box reviews
- 5 ways to pack a dish without using plastic wrap
- Lots of reusable sandwich and snack bags reviews
Steps for Getting into Glass Storage Containers
- Take a wander through your cupboards. Make mental notes of everything you see that is glass or ceramic that has a lid. Try to default to using those first for storing leftovers, cut fruit, meal prep items, etc. BEFORE you open the plastic cupboard. Sometimes you’ll be acting out of the box; for example, you might use a casserole dish with a lid to store fruit slices, or a coffee mug to store soup leftovers.
- Keep all your glass jars from store-bought items. I store soup, yogurt, applesauce and more in spaghetti sauce jars. Sunflower seeds for salads are in an olive jar. Homemade ranch dressing in a pickle jar. Pizza sauce in my freezer in salsa jars. Free is a great price for “new” food storage containers!
- Birthday coming up? IOU on a Mother’s Day present? Put glass dishes with lids on your list.
I received some great 1, 2 and 3-cup sizes from Anchor-Hocking, and I already owned a nice set of glass storage containers made by Pyrex. Both are so helpful to have around, but I have had troubles with Anchor’s lids warping (just the 2-cup size), even with no microwave use. To their credit, the company has been more than helpful, sending me replacement lids without problem not once, but twice. They tell me they’re working on getting a new supplier for the lids, moving to an American company from a Chinese one. Props to them for taking steps (but you might not want their 2-cuppers until they make the switch!). Both companies promise their lids are BPA-free.
13 Reasons I Love Glass Storage Containers
- They don’t turn red when I put tomato-based food in them.
- They don’t smell like the last food you’ve eaten even after they’re washed.
- They are very easy to clean. You can really scrub and even use steel wool without worrying about breaking or scratching the surface. There aren’t weird crevices that food can sneak into.
- They don’t begin to crack over time and need to be recycled and replaced.
- They can go right into the toaster oven.
- They can go right into the freezer and withstand a lot of banging around as I search for stuff!
- They don’t get any weird discolorations/warping/pock marks in the microwave (if you do that kind of thing).
- The lids stay on very well and don’t have a little tab that could get caught on something in a lunch bag and come off.
- They teach my son (and the rest of us) to be careful with possessions. He can tell that they’re heavy and breakable, thus he takes more care with them.
- They don’t break, even if they slide out of the fridge. This one, I’m sure, will be proven wrong someday (probably soon, now that I’ve put it in writing, right?), but so far, the glass dishes have been remarkably durable. I haven’t dropped one out of the freezer yet – -that might be a deal-breaker!
- They don’t flip over in the dishwasher top rack, and I can put them in the top or bottom rack, so more Tetris options when I’m seeking a completely full dishwasher.
- They dry completely in the dishwasher or dish rack – no more pockets of standing water (dripping all over my dry dishes) like with the plastic stuff. Yes, the lids hold a little water, but it’s nothing compared to my old life of plastic containers.
- And best of all: They don’t leach BPA into my food, or any other unknown chemicals, for that matter.
I would be remiss if I didn’t address the fact that almost everyone has old Tupperware hanging around their cupboards. These usually don’t have recycle numbers on them. Here is a helpful article about Tupperware safety, where I learned that most (but not all – see link for a list) Tupperware products do not contain BPA.
Other plastics Missions:
- Don’t Drink BPA
- Targeting Plastic Shopping Bags
- Need to pack food to go? Check out this post for some healthy foods to pack, plus ideas for what to pack them in to avoid plastic.