Plastic safety? What does that mean? So often, things are made of plastic in an effort to be safer. However, these colorful and cheery items can actually be quite dangerous.
Plastic is everywhere, and while it’s nearly impossible to eliminate all plastic from your life, it is possible to reduce it significantly. But why? Aside from the damage to the environment and continued reliance on fossil fuels (most plastic is made from petroleum), many plastics pose a serious health risk. I have done my research to put together a post on plastic safety and some alternatives to using plastic.
How can you tell the difference between the generally safe and not-so-safe? Look at the bottom of your plastic cups, food storage containers, etc. Next to the recycling symbol (or sometimes inside it), you’ll see a number. Below is a quick primer on what the numbers mean. If you don’t want to read the nitty-gritty, just remember to avoid 3, 6, and 7. And above all, try not to stress about the plastic safety issues – we only do the best we know how to do. Every day I learn a little more and that helps me to make better decisions in the future. I hope this information is helpful to you!
#1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET, PETE). Most commonly found in plastic water bottles. Can contain trace amounts of BPA (bisphenol A), degrades with use and leaches BPA when heated or left in a hot car. Best to think of this type of plastic as a one-time use plastic.
#2 – High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE). Used to make jugs/bottles for milk, juice, cleaning supplies, toiletries and more. No known problems.
#3 – Polyvinyl chloride or vinyl (PVC). AVOID. Common in shower curtains, building materials, toys, teethers, food packaging, flooring, padded playmats, etc. The most toxic of all plastics. Made with vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. Manufacturing process releases dioxins which cause cancer, birth defects, development delays and more. To make PVC flexible and soft, phthalates are added – which are linked to reproductive problems and birth defects. Note that the European Union has banned DHEP which is the most widely used phthalate in PVC and children’s toys. Avoid plastic #3.
#4 – Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE). One of the safer plastics – commonly found in shopping bags, grocery bags, dry cleaning bags and plastic wrap. I still prefer to take my own bags to the supermarket, but when I do receive these, I am sure to recycle them.
#5 – Polypropylene (PP). Used in yogurt containers, bottle caps, drinking straws and takeout & deli containers. Generally safe.
#6 – Polystyrene (PS). AVOID. Found in plastic spoons and forks, and also in Styrofoam. These plastics leach styrene, which is a known neurotoxin. Avoid plastic #6.
#7 – Other. AVOID.
This catch-all category includes polycarbonate which often contains BPA (bisphenol-A) BPA is now pretty well-known as dangerous for its estrogen-mimicking properties. You’ll see a lot of products advertised as “BPA-free” – unfortunately in many cases, it has been replaced with BPS (bisphenol-S)
which has similar estrogen-mimicking properties and only serves to allow companies to print “BPA-free” on their products while continuing to use a dangerous chemical. Also, BPA isn’t just found in plastic bottles – it’s also often in the lining of canned goods and on ATM receipts and receipts from the register in many shops. What makes category #7 tricky is that it can also include a number of newer (and usually, but not always safer) plant-based plastics (made from corn, rice potatoes and more) which are compostable, as well as other safer types of plastic like ABS plastic
(Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) which is a very hard plastic that has been around since the 1950s with no known health problems (Legos are made of ABS plastic). Bottom line: Avoid plastic #7
unless you know for sure that it’s a compostable bio-plastic or another plastic generally known to be safe (for example ABS plastic).
So just to recap – avoid plastics #3, #6 and #7. Plastic #1 is for single use only. Plastics #2, #4 and #5 are generally recognized as safe. Unfortunately, as new research uncovers more and more problems with different types of plastics, you may begin to feel that no plastic is 100% safe. Especially when you read a study from the University of Texas which tested 455 common plastic products and found that 70% tested positive for estrogenic activity (mimicking the effects of estrogen in the human body) and even more disturbing, that figure rose to 95% once the products were subjected to “stress” such as dishwashing or microwaving. The study is rather dry reading material, but this article from Time Magazine is a good summary: Even BPA-Free Plastics Leach Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals.
With this in mind, I choose an alternative to plastic whenever possible, but especially for kid-related and food/kitchen items. When I shop, I choose items sold in glass over those in plastic, especially if it’s an item that spends a long time on the shelf in the store or my pantry (such as jam, nut butter, olive oil, etc). I also never use those plastic bags from the produce department. I am going to wash my produce anyway, so I don’t need a plastic bag to carry it home – those bags are terrible since most can’t be recycled (not to mention dangerous around children).
Some of the biggest problems come from heating plastics or putting hot liquids or hot food into plastic, causing or accelerating the leaching of toxins into your food or beverage, so I avoid any plastics that will be warmed or have warm food or drinks in them. When I do use plastic, I try to wash it by hand, rather than putting it in the dishwasher, which in itself is a huge encouragement not to use plastic! And all those plastic containers that I no longer use for food have found a new home in my tool/craft cabinet – I use them to keep things like batteries, screws/nails, paint samples, etc. neat and organized.
Here is a quick rundown of some of the alternatives I’ve chosen to use. The bonus is that non-plastic items are almost always more stylish & aesthetically pleasing, longer-lasting and practical.
Food Storage – Glass:
I replaced all of our plastic food storage containers with glass Pyrex containers
which have the added of advantage of going straight from fridge to our Breville
toaster oven (a fantastic & versatile little appliance that we use in place of a microwave). Originally I had the Pyrex set with plastic lids, but then I got the ones with the glass/silicone lids
which are awesome. I have a few of the Life Factory storage containers
as well and I like them much more for storing things that are more likely to leak, because the lids have little button tabs to hold them securely in place. I like these stainless steel bento-box style containers
for food storage on the go – great for picnics or taking meals on the plane. I also use these Ball Quilted Jelly Jars
for food storage – they are freezer-safe and inexpensive. For beverages (such as iced jasmine green tea
), I use this glass jug
to store in the fridge. I had a lot of large jars for dry goods that I bought in bulk from a restaurant supply company ages ago when I lived in the UK and have added to my collection with these
from Crate and Barrel (also available on Amazon here
). I use them for flour, pasta, rice, seeds, nuts, dog treats and more. Not only is it safer than plastic, it’s cleaner and easier than using the paper or plastic sacks that dry foods usually come in. And it’s immensely satisfying to my sense of order to see them lined up neatly and uniformly when I open my pantry door.
Other Kitchen Items – Glass, Silicone, Wood:
I love my electric ceramic kettle
– not only is it free of plastic, but it’s also so pretty, which matters when you use something every single day, multiple times per day. And plastic safety is so important with a kettle since it’s heating water – I prefer the ceramic kettle over stainless steel versions because the water tastes better and the kettle itself is just prettier. I went through my spoons and spatulas, and got rid of the plastic ones (I noticed lots which had melted pieces of plastic flaking off). I had tons of wooden spoons already, so no need to buy anything new. I replaced the spatulas with these silicone ones
in three different sizes – the “cookie” size is very small and indeed only useful for cookies, so keep that in mind! I replaced our plastic cutting boards with these bamboo cutting boards
, which were the only ones I could find that are dishwasher-safe (when they look too dry, I rub a bit of olive oil on them and that seems to have helped them last). I love Celtic grey sea salt
, but it comes in a plastic container that clogs easily in the New Orleans humidity (not to mention it’s less expensive to buy it in bags
). I found this great glass shaker
online to solve both issues. I actually bought two, because I use one for mixing up my own Creole seasoning blend. I picked up some of these spice jars
as well when I discovered what a bargain the bulk spices are at Whole Foods (seriously, why spend $4.99 on a jar of organic cinnamon when you can get the same quantity for under a dollar and use your own container?)
Beverages – Glass or Ceramic:
My favorite water bottle is this stainless steel Contigo Autoseal Travel Mug
– yes, it’s technically a travel mug, but I use it for water as well as tea or coffee. It is the only water bottle that has never leaked on me, even when turned upside down in my handbag. They also have a version just for water
that has a wider spout, but I like having one item that I can use for everything and after reading Marie Kondo’s book
, I’m trying to reduce the amount of stuff I have. These double-walled ceramic travel mugs with silicone lids
are similar to the ones I found (on discount at Marshall’s and World Market) – they are perfect for hot tea (or coffee or hot cocoa) and come in lots of fun designs. I also have a couple of stainless steel Thermoses, but they keep the beverage so incredibly hot that I can’t ever drink it, so I almost never use them. They are great for long journeys, hiking or other outdoor activities. For kids, the best non-leaking water bottle that I have found is the Thermos Funtainer
. It has a silicone straw, comes in several different sizes and I like that you can buy replacement straws
Shower curtains – Cotton:
I skip the plastic liners (most commonly made of toxic PVC) and only use fabric shower curtains that I wash on a regular basis. Surprisingly it doesn’t really let much water out – and what does get past the fabric shower curtain lands on the bath mats, which are also washed on a regular basis. Also I have never ever had an issue with the shower curtain getting yucky and mildewy the way the plastic ones do. I had considered getting one of these cotton duck
shower curtains, which are naturally water-repellent, but since our regular cotton shower curtains are working just fine, I haven’t bothered, and have just stuck to the plain old cotton ones that I bought at Target when I moved into my house and realized I had no shower curtains. You can also buy cotton duck fabric
and make your own. I haven’t made a shower curtain, but I did use organic cotton duck fabric
as the backing for a park blanket I made for my little one. It provides enough waterproofing to keep us comfortable when the ground is slightly damp.
For Baby & Kids – Glass, Rubber, Cotton, Wood:
This is where plastic safety is so important since the effect of endocrine-disrupting chemicals is much more pronounced in an infant or small child. We used LifeFactory Glass Baby Bottles
with a silicone protective sleeve – no complaints from me or Baby. I like that the entire bottle and silicone sleeve could go in the dishwasher together. They could also go in the freezer and bottle warmer
. When she was a bit older, I switched to these Pura Kiki Stainless Steel bottles
– you can switch out the tops to transition from a regular infant bottle
to a sippy cup
to a straw cup
. For yogurt or homemade smoothies on the go, I loved this Squeasy Snacker silicone food pouch
. This Natursutten Natural Rubber Pacifier
(which I’m told looks retro or old-fashioned – I even had people stop me to ask where to buy it). A rubber ducky for the bathtub is actually 100% natural rubber
instead of PVC like many and this bathtub spout cover
from Skip Hop, also in natural rubber, and a set of rubber bath toys
. This Waterproof Crib Mattress Cover
and this Changing Pad
, both from Naturpedic are made from organic cotton (no PVC or chemical coatings). These freezer-safe glass jelly jars
from Ball for breastmilk storage instead of plastic bags can also be used for food storage (great for freezing individual portion sizes). To avoid using plastic sandwich bags, I bought a variety of these Itzy Ritzy snack bags in various sizes
. They come in super cute patterns (both kid and adult designs) and have really helped cut back on plastic bag usage – they are great for travel and days out when I don’t want to carry a heavy container. For toys, I look for wooden or natural rubber or organic cotton toys. If I’m in doubt about something, I check it out on healthytoys.org
or contact the manufacturer before purchasing.
Whew! This has turned into a monster of a post, but I hope it has been helpful for learning about plastic safety and some good alternatives. I think the most important thing to remember is to take it all in stride and don’t stress about what’s already happened. Decide to make safer choices going forward and do the best you can. For more recommendations for safe products for personal care, kids & home, please check out my Shop.
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