Plastic is the sweetheart of the American diet, making all of our fast-paced and convenience-driven dreams come true. We can order takeout, cook dinner at home in less than 10 minutes in the microwave, or enjoy leftovers – thanks to the handiness of plastic.
Sorting Through the Good and the Bad
By Jenni Frankenberg Veal
From the fast food lanes to the grocery store aisles, our food is processed, packaged, cooked, served and stored in plastic. In fact, most of us would find it difficult to imagine life without plastic, we have become so accustom to its utility and presence. But recent research is forcing consumers to take a hard look at plastic and consider the long-term effect it is having on human health and the natural environment.
Despite the controversy surrounding it today, plastic’s beginnings are actually quite organic. Developed in the late 19th century, the first man-made plastic, celluloid, was made from plant fibers. The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was developed in 1907. Since that time, technology and chemistry have molded plastic to meet every imaginable human need. Take a look around your home and car and you’ll find plenty of perfectly useful plastic: car seats, phones, sippy cups, water bottles, toys, computers and much more. Unfortunately, plastic’s versatility and durability have come at a cost: harmful chemical compounds in our environment and bodies.
Polycarbonate plastic, which contains bisphenol A (BPA), is one of the most controversial plastics. BPA has been found to mimic the hormone estrogen and may disrupt the body’s endocrine system. Public health advocates say it poses a particular risk to fetuses, infants and children. The National Toxicology Program issued a report last year that includes “some concern” about BPA’s possible effects on brain, prostate gland, and behavior in fetuses, infants and children, and “minimal concern” for effects on the mammary gland and an earlier age for female puberty in fetuses, infants and children. This is also the chemical that stirred up so much controversy when consumers realized that most baby bottles were made with BPA. The good news is that the top six makers of baby bottles in the U.S. have recently agreed to stop using BPA in their bottles.
Polyvinyl Chloride is the other controversial plastic. PVC contains phthalates, a group of chemicals often used to soften vinyl and other plastics. Congress has banned the use of these chemicals in toys because of evidence they can have health effects including early puberty, reproductive defects, and lower sperm counts in boys. Additionally, the manufacture and incineration of phthalates releases dioxin, a known carcinogen and hormone disruptor.
Studies have confirmed that plastic leaches into our food from containers. Heating food in plastic seems to increase the amount that is transferred to food. According to a recent study by University of Cincinnati scientists, the temperature of a liquid in a polycarbonate bottle has the most impact on how much BPA is released. The group found that the higher the temperature of the liquid, the more rapidly the BPA was released. Leaching also increases when plastic touches fatty, salty or acidic foods.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published research in 2008 that suggests widespread exposure to BPA in the U.S. population. According to their research, females had significantly higher levels of BPA than males; children had the highest levels, followed by teens and adults.
It is difficult to ignore the potential risks of plastic. The best way to protect yourself, your family and the environment from harmful chemicals in plastic is to educate yourself about the health risks and seek alternatives whenever possible.
To help you make informed decisions, the following outlines which plastics are generally safe, and which plastics to avoid altogether.
Plastics to Avoid
The following plastics should be avoided, according to The Green Guide, an online resource produced by National Geographic:
#3 Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Used in various containers and hard packaging, cling wraps for meat, and cooking oil bottles; also used for plumbing pipes and medical tubing and bags.
Reason to avoid: This type of plastic contains phthalates, known to disrupt hormones – especially testosterone. Additionally, its manufacture and incineration releases dioxin, a known carcinogen and hormone disruptor.
#6 Polystyrene (PS)
Used in disposable cups, plates, bowls and cutlery, clear take-out containers and aspirin bottles.
Reason to avoid: This type of plastic can leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food.
#7 Polycarbonate (PC) and Other
Used in linings of canned food, reusable water bottles, sippy cups, dental sealants, and some brands of baby bottles.
Reason to avoid: This plastic is the only type made with bisphenol A, a man-made chemical classified as an endocrine disruptor that alters the function of the endocrine system by mimicking the role of the body’s natural hormones.
The following plastics are not known to transmit chemicals into food and are generally recyclable, according to The Green Guide:
#1 Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)
Used in disposable containers for soft drinks, water, juice, mouthwash, ketchup, peanut butter, jelly and pickles. Also used in microwavable trays. Recommended for single use only. Widely accepted by municipal recyclers.
#2 High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Used in containers for milk, water, juice, shampoo and detergent bottles, as well as cereal-box liners and shopping bags. Widely accepted by municipal recyclers.
#4 Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Used in bags for bread and frozen foods; also used in squeeze bottles, cling wrap, grocery bags, sandwich bags, and coatings for milk cartons and hot-beverage cups.
#5 Polypropylene (PP)
Used in containers for yogurt, margarine, ketchup and syrup, as well as takeout containers and medicine bottles.
Biodegradable polyester derived from renewable resources, such as corn, potatoes, sugar cane and anything else with high starch content. PLA can be composted in a municipal composter or in a backyard compost pile.
The bottom line is that consumers need to educate themselves about the different types of plastics and how to use them wisely.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a resident of Signal Mountain, Tennessee. She is a writer and editor specializing in environmental education and the natural landscape of the southeastern United States. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, as well as a strong background in conservation and outdoor recreation. Jenni’s favorite pastime is hiking the backwoods of Sequatchie County, Tennessee.