Are plastic food containers poisoning us?
Plastic is all around us. And there is a lot of it out there. In 2013, global plastics production was estimated at 330 million tons.
For many of us, it is throughout our home, our workplace, our car, and the bus we might take to and from work. Just look around your life and you will be amazed how plastic-based it is. It can be in your clothing, eyeglasses, teeth, computers, phones, dishes, utensils, toys.
It also forms much of the packaging and storage containers for our food and drink. Orange juice, cheddar cheese, hummus, ketchup, cereal, bread, fruit, vegetables… a typical grocery store is brimming with plastic encased food and beverages.
So what’s the problem with plastic? And why should you try to avoid it?
Environmentally, plastic is a growing disaster. Most plastics are made from petroleum or natural gas; non-renewable resources extracted and processed using energy-intensive techniques that destroy fragile ecosystems. Plastic packaging – including the ubiquitous plastic bag – is an enormous source of ocean and landfill waste and is regularly eaten by numerous marine and land animals, to fatal consequences. It’s estimated that there are currently more than 5 trillion plastics weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea.
But let’s focus on the health-related problems associated with plastics – especially plastics that come into contact with your food and drink on a daily basis. These plastics used for dishes, containers and packaging can leach synthetic toxic chemicals, which then end up in your and your families’ bodies.
You’ve probably heard of bisphenol A (BPA), a known endocrine-disrupting plastic additive that is the building block of polycarbonate plastics. It is commonly used to make water bottles – including the large blue water containers used for stand-alone water coolers – and the epoxy lining of many food and beverage cans. BPA mimics the hormone estrogen, and exposure to even very tiny amounts of it have been linked to a variety of human developmental problems including altered immune function, early puberty, increased prostate size, obesity, insulin inhibition, hyperactivity, and learning disabilities.
Don’t be fooled by plastics touted as BPA-free because the BPA substitutes used are increasingly being to shown to be as hormonally active as BPA and have similar endocrine disrupting effects.
Then there are phthalates, which are plasticizers – meaning they give a plastic its soft flexible qualities – that can constitute up to 50% of the toxic plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This is a cheap and unstable plastic, so the phthalates can leach out of PVC containers quite readily.
Like BPA, these phthalates are also endocrine disruptors and have been linked to asthma, allergy symptoms, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and certain cancers, including breast cancer. Incredibly, PVC is still used to make numerous consumer products including toys, clear food and non-food packaging – such as take-out containers, blister wrap, cling wrap – squeeze bottles, shampoo bottles, mouthwash bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars.
It’s also important to mention a plastic called polystyrene, used for the ubiquitous Styrofoam food containers and dishes for take-out food, as well as clear plastic cutlery. It can leach styrene, which has also been linked to cancers.
These are a few of most common plastic culprits out there.
If you must use plastic containers, try to avoid heating foods in them, especially in the microwave oven, which can cause the plastic to degrade and leach chemicals faster. As well, leaching increases when plastic comes into contact with fatty, oily or acidic foods such as tomato sauces, or when the plastic is scratched, worn, cracked, or sticky.
Better yet, try and find alternatives to plastics for your food and drink… glass, ceramic, stainless steel, wood. More and more alternatives are becoming available as people learn about the dangers of plastics and look for ways to “deplastify” their lives.
And you don’t need to spend money to begin to make the shift away from plastic in your life. It’s incredible what you can do with a simple mason jar: water bottle, storing leftovers in fridge or freezer, storing bulk goods, use it for take-out food. You might get some puzzled looks and refusals from food vendors, but don’t give up – that’s how change occurs.
The upshot is that without you realizing it, plastic food containers and packaging might slowly be poisoning you and your family. The good news is that there are lots of ways you can easily live with less plastic. And if you’re looking to completely revamp your life, you might want to check out My Plastic-Free Life blogger Beth Terry’s 100 Steps to a Plastic-Free Life.
All the best on your plastic-free journey!
Jay Sinha is Co-Founder & Co-Owner of Life Without Plastic (www.lifewithoutplastic.com), an on-line resource for safe, high quality, ethically-sourced, Earth friendly alternatives to plastics for everyday life. Life Without Plastic is committed to education and advocacy on the plastics issue and acts a hub for information on plastic and plastic alternatives, while also offering ways for anybody to take action to reduce their plastic footprint on Earth. His background is in biochemistry, ecotoxicology and law.