Is packing food in plastic storage containers and drinking from plastic bottles safe? Do you risk the plastic leaching chemicals like BPA and phthalates? How and why to reduce plastic in your life:
When I was in middle and high school, you could pretty much guarantee I’d be behind the trend of what’s “cool,” but finally, in adulthood, my geekiness has gotten me ahead of the curve!
After over a decade of using our stainless steel bottles as a family, bringing my own bags to the grocery store and putting leftovers almost exclusively in glass, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to see the pendulum of single-use plastics and creating waste in general finally starting to swing back in the right direction. Even in mainstream media, we’re starting to be encouraged NOT to drink from plastic containers and cook in plastics!
This is a huge step in the right direction. I see more and more people using stainless steel or glass water bottles and bringing their own coffee mugs, and reusable snack and sandwich bags are finally trendy. (With the advent of K-cups of course, we took a step in the wrong direction, but we can work on that.) RELATED: 3 Ways to Make Garbage Free Coffee
But it is just one part of a much bigger issue. Plastic is everywhere. We’ve overused it to the tune of 8 million tons going into the ocean every year plus mind-boggling amounts cluttering up landfills. The lack of decomposition is one problem (it will take over 400 years to degrade, likely more); the negative impact on our health both while we use plastic and as it possibly leaches out into those landfills and oceans is another.
Now is the perfect time to consider the health of our earth and our future and learn how to reduce plastic in your life. This includes both disposable and reusable plastic. Every little bit we reduce makes a difference!
The Dangers of Plastic Food Containers
Plastic packaging is a serious waste problem, accounting for about 40% of plastic waste.
You can’t do much about the fact that you have to buy things like cheese and sour cream 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 you can try to find milk in glass jars (we go right to the farm) and make your own yogurt.
Even when you do end up with some plastic packaging at the store, once you get home and make a wholesome meal, is it really worth it to put it in a plastic container? RELATED: hazards of plastics
In case you need more convincing, I came across a quote about BPA 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.
So what’s wrong with eating and drinking from or storing food in plastic containers?
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. Endocrine disruptors mess with our hormones!
Low doses may cause chronic toxicity in humans, posing the highest risk to pregnant 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 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, or straight into baby’s mouth as it’s often used in teething toys.
Phthalates also 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 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 also a flame retardant in mattresses, of all things.
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.
Surprising Antibacterials in Plastic!
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. We already know there are serious concerns about antibacterial chemicals in our environment, and now they’re coming from places we didn’t even expect!
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.
Plus, really, every year we’re discovering something new. Those of us who have a healthy skepticism about many things tend to say, “If it might leach something we haven’t discovered yet, it’s still safest to stay away!” I like Lara Adler’s take. RELATED: She did a fabulous interview on reducing toxins for the Healthy Parenting Connector!
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?
How to Reduce and Replace Plastic on your Food
I know we can’t all do everything to avoid plastic. You know I’m all about baby steps and factoring in your budget here. Just do what you can with the following steps and guidelines. Start with one or two and then come back to see if you’re ready for another step. Every little bit helps.
Plastic Recycle Numbers to AVOID Always
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…
Don’t Put Fat, Acids or Hot Foods Into Plastic Containers
This is one of the most important factors when it comes to plastic food containers. Avoid putting 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.
In general, do NOT put the following items in plastic containers:
- Tomatoes/tomato-based products
- Hot or even warm food
- Fats and oils
Fats and acidic foods like tomatoes leach more quickly, so anything in the plastic goes into your food at a higher rate. Be cognizant!
Do Not Heat Plastic!
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.
I’ve been saying this for ten years, but it’s been pretty controversial up until now. For example:
- In the early 2000s, Snopes soundly trounced into about microwaving plastics because of cancer-causing dioxins. That’s true that it’s not true…but it also gave people a false sense of security. “Oh, plastics in the microwave won’t cause cancer, awesome, plastics are safe to microwave!”
- In 2016, Time Magazine broke the “bad news” that “microwave-safe” plastics don’t actually mean they’re safe for humans, just that you won’t melt your dish. This was in the midst of the “BPA-Free!” campaigns that changed the way everyone bought plastic. We started buying BPA-free plastic (without realizing that there are probably other chemicals that replaced BPA that will also leach). 🙁
- In 2017 Harvard published this article acknowledging that yes, BPA and phthalates probably DO leach from plastic containers. Progress…but it didn’t get much press.
- Last year, in August 2018, FINALLY the American Academy of Pediatrics officially told parents NOT to put “children’s food” in plastic containers in the microwave or to even put plastics in the dishwasher. This was shocking for many, and it got enough media (and social media) attention to make waves. Note: If it’s not safe for kids, don’t do it for adults either!
Will people listen? Only time will tell, and I’ll always be here helping moms make the small, helpful changes in their homes to keep their family safe!
Remove, Recycle and Repurpose Plastic Containers
Throw away, recycle or repurpose orphan containers and lids. 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 good for you.
Consider what you really need to function as a household. I was surprised that although I missed a few things that I boxed up to “stage” the house to sell, I didn’t want 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.
Switch to Glass Containers
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.
Switch to Stainless Steel Containers
Glass is not the only alternative to plastic food containers. Stainless steel is a great option! Especially for packing school lunches. And it’s not breakable – an important factor with kids. We have lots of these watertight containers for yogurts in lunches (and bigger ones are great for home leftovers), Lunchbots for lunch packing, and if you really want the benefits of stainless steel instead of glass (unbreakable, lighter-weight), I highly recommend that you check out Life Without Plastic for tons of options.
Bonus: Stainless bowls can be used directly on the stove top for heating at home.
I’ve been using stainless steel for many years now. Here is why I love it so much!
Whenever I post my little guys’ lunches at home on Instagram, people ask about the divided stainless steel plates – yet another area we see a lot of plastic use, and on the most sensitive population! You can find those at ECOlunchboxes or Life Without Plastic. We also use these tiny bowls a LOT for serving little ones. They help us big adults choose an appropriate portion size, too!
Swap to Reusable Sandwich Bags
An easy way to reduce plastic touching your food is by using cloth sandwich bags. They come in all sorts of colors, patterns, and fabrics. I’ve reviewed just about every brand so you know which ones hold up the best.
Using cloth snack bags instead of plastic will save a lot of money in the long run. Plus it’s better for the environment. Not to mention kids love them.
Ditch the Plastic Wrap
A case can be made for plastic wrap in terms of health safety. It doesn’t necessarily touch your food. So in that sense, it’s not so bad. But it is waste. And if you put it over hot food it can still leach chemicals. That condensation that drips down…it’s not good.
I’ve got some simple solutions to help you ditch the plastic wrap. Some will cost you nothing. Just use things you already have at home. Others are natural alternatives to plastic wrap. Figure out what works best for you.
Here are some other great tips for reducing plastic.
Use Bar Soap Instead of Plastic Pumps
Another place we see a LOT of single use plastic is personal products – soaps, shampoos, ETC.
I definitely refill and reuse plastic pump bottles, but even better is to just use bars – you can use bar soap in the shower instead of body wash (which typically has way too many chemicals in it anyway), and even get shampoo bars for your hair – way easier to travel on a plane with, bonus! I get mine for face, body, hands and hair currently from Earthley.
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. #facepalm
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 finger paints.
How do you freeze things without plastic?
Ideally, you’d use stainless steel and glass storage, including 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. RELATED: How to Freeze in Glass Jars (without breaking them)
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 reduced 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.
How to Switch From Plastic to 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 was more than helpful, sending me replacement lids without a problem not once, but twice, years ago. They told me they’re working on getting a new supplier for the lids, moving to an American company from a Chinese one. At this point in 2019, I think they have, because my newest containers work great and are much more long-lasting! Props to them for taking steps. Both companies promise their lids are BPA-free…bah…
In case you’re still on the fence about investing in glass storage containers, here are some reasons you’ll love them.
- They don’t change color or 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.
- 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 don’t break, even if they slide out of the fridge. This one, I’m sure, will be proven wrong someday, 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 99% of the time, I wash plastic lids by hand, because it extends their life. My mom taught me that for years, and now that the AAP has made it public, I’m sure my mom feels good about being right! As usual!
- 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. I learned that most (but not all) Tupperware products do not contain BPA, but I still wouldn’t recommend using them regularly, especially on liquids and fats. 🙁 And certainly don’t buy any more! Baby steps…
Why You Should Stop Drinking From Plastic
Drinking from plastic containers is probably worst than eating from them. Both your mouth and your beverage touches it. Sadly you probably do it more often than you think. Here are some common ways you use plastic for drinking.
- Reusable water bottles
- Disposable water bottles
- Sippy cups
- Baby bottles
Thankfully there are a lot of fun and affordable alternatives.
Reusable Water Bottles
A simple twist off cap is the easiest to clean. And you don’t have to suck on plastic to drink.
Baby Bottles & Sippy Cups Without Plastic
Let’s face it, kids drink from bottles and sippy cups a lot. Which means they are being exposed to toxins if the bottles and cups aren’t made from quality material. This is one area to splurge to make sure your kids are safe. I reviewed 8 of them a few years ago, but I’m sure there are many more options now that our general consciousness is up!
There are more and more glass baby bottle options these days. Make sure the nipples are made from safe, BPA-free material as well. Silicone is a safe option.
Sippy cups are great for traveling. But try to limit use at home. Even young kids can learn to drink from a regular glass. It’s a lot better for their teeth too, and feeding experts say that we need to teach kids to eat and drink like adults in form as soon as possible, just to build the right habits.
If you need something a bit more spill-proof at home, Silikids Siliskins are great. You can put them on a mason jar or regular glass and are a very budget-friendly option. Companies like Life Factory also make sippy cups.
For bigger kids, you can upgrade to water bottles, and we have stainless steel bottles with sippy lids for our tiniest kids.
Plastic Free Cups for Kids
Ditching plastic cups is the easiest item on the list. Most of us probably already use glass. Mason jars work really well too and are harder to break. 😉
Just make sure the kids are drinking from glass as well! Teach them at a young age how to be careful with glass. Something simple like a half-pint mason jar is perfect for little hands. If you just can’t get over the kids and glass idea, there are great stainless steel cups on Amazon; ours are from Life Without Plastic.
What to do About Plastic and Straws?
I don’t know about your kids, but mine LOVE using straws. And sometimes it’s a great way to get them to try a smoothie if they have determined they don’t like it. Or a fun way to eat a veggie loaded blended soup. But the disposable straws have got to go.
Some great options to replace plastic straws are glass (better for older kids as they do break pretty easily if they are dropped), stainless steel and silicone (great for little ones that tend to chew on straws). The silicone straws come in all sorts of colors and designs. They are definitely a fun option. Also price compare at ECOlunchboxes, where they carry all sorts of reusable, easy-for-little-hands plastic-free supplies, like straws in glass, stainless steel, silicone and even bamboo, a super sustainable wood!
Why You Should Shop with Reusable Grocery Bags
We’ve covered all of the products that impact your personal health. But the use of plastic does not stop there.
So much plastic is wasted on a daily basis from plastic shopping bags. Whether you are at the grocery store, the mall or even your local farmer’s market, you’ll see people toting single-use plastics. It’s painful to me!
There is a very simple solution: Reusable shopping bags. There are very affordable options. They are easy to wash. And, honestly, they make carrying groceries and other purchased goods so much easier. If nothing else they make you look like a health-conscious consumer. 😉
Simply keep them in your car or purse so you always have them, no matter where you shop. Reusable grocery bags are also great for packing all your beach gear, potluck food or kids’ stuff for a long car ride. We use them on vacation, like when we took all our own food to Disney!!
Check out these reusable grocery bag options Becca walked us through. I seriously just bought a bunch of tiny-fold-up bags and gave them to all the aunties and cousins as “stocking stuffers” (a tradition in my husband’s family). I have had an Envirosax brand for many, many years and I’m impressed with how tiny it rolls and how well it holds up. See what style fits you best.
Are You Ready to Eliminate Plastic From Your Life?
It can sound overwhelming if you are starting from square one. But it doesn’t have to be. Choose one area (storage container, cups, straws, bags) and gradually start replacing what you have with a more environmentally-friendly and health-conscious option.
Ask for glass containers and water bottles as Christmas and birthday gifts. Watch for sales and stock up.
Before you know it you’ll have minimal plastic in your life!
Need More Baby Steps?
Here at Kitchen Stewardship®, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.
That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.
Sign up to get weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.