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Better Plastics

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Is your water bottle killing you?  First, came the news about the toxic baby bottles and, then, Nalgene and Camelbak and all of my once favorite sports bottle companies phased out their polycarbonate lines (all the while denying their products have anything wrong with them).  Then, everyone came out with BPA-free plastics. And, while researching the Green Mama book, a bunch of research came out that the BPA-free plastics were just as bad as BPA.

What this tells me is that consumers are getting educated and what they are learning is scaring them into demanding safer products. What are safer products and how do we stay ahead of the smart marketing?

Our lives are filled with plastics. Which ones should we avoid? How bad are they? And what are our alternatives?  Here is a quick and dirty guide.

CHEMICALS IN PLASTICS: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly


Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of 39 bisphenol-containing chemicals that are known or suspected endocrine disruptors. (BPS, commonly used in “BPA-free” products is another). BPAs may cause problems of brain and hormone development, decreased sperm counts, erectile dysfunction, heart disease, diabetes, liver abnormalities, and breast cancer. It is found in hard plastic items such as baby bottles and is in the lining of canned goods.

Where do you find it: BPA is a plasticizer that is found in (and leaches out of) products such as polycarbonate water bottles, baby bottles, canned soups, beans, and other foods as well as softdrinks. Nearly all can liners contain BPA.  Regular use, such as dishwashing and heating, increases the chance that BPA is leaching out of your water bottle or food storage container.

Phthalates—including DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, and DIDP, and DNOP— have estrogen mimicking properties and are linked to cancer and diseases of the kidneys, liver, and other organs. The CDC recently did a study that found 75% of participants had detectible levels of phthalates in their bodies. Babies born to mothers who were exposed during pregnancy can be born with birth defects and development delays.

Where do you find it: Phthalates are used in many plastic kids items, in vinyl boots (and all other vinyl), but they are also found outside of plastics and are contained in many of your cosmetics, skincare products, and fragrances.

Polyvinyl chloride, a.k.a. PVC or vinyl, is a truly ugly plastic, one of the worst for environmental and human health as it contains lead AND releases the super-toxin, dioxin, when produced or destroyed. PVC also contains and can leach phthalates. It is linked to neurotoxic effects and endocrine problems.

Where do you find it? PVC is used in many building supplies such as plumbing, an in many soft, pliable plastic products such as rain coats and boots, crib mattress covers, cling-wraps (such as used on meat), and bottles of cooking oil.  It is found in soft, pliable plastic products like crib mattress covers, bath toys, and, though it is supposed to be banned from them, some teething toys.
Melamine is a chemical by-product of industrial processes and is added to some plastics (and some foods, such as in the baby formula scandal). It is linked to kidney failure. Melamine products may also release formaldehyde.

Where do you find it? It is found in many children’s plates and cups that are sold as “BPA-free” or “shatterproof,” and looks like hard plastic.

Polystyrene or Styrofoam contains the toxic substances styrene and benzene, suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins hazardous to humans. Hot foods and liquids, alcohol, oils, acidic foods, and red wine all cause Styrofoam to release toxins into food or drink.

What You Can Learn From the Plastic Recycling Codes

So you’ve gotten rid of your plastic water bottles, what about those plastic yoghurt containers, plastic ziplock bags, and plastic Tupperware containers that are crowding our cupboards, are they safe?  Here is a guide to help you more easily determine what is what and which one to choose.

#1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) Proceed With Caution
#2 high density polyethylene (HDPE) Proceed With Caution
#3 polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC) Always Avoid!
#4 low density polyethylene (LDPE) Proceed With Caution
#5 polypropylene (PP) Proceed With Caution
#6 polystyrene (PS) Always Avoid!
#7 other (usually polycarbonate) Always Avoid!
PLA (polylactide) Considered Better Option, Proceed with Caution

PLA plastics are made from renewable resources, e.g., corn, potatoes or sugar cane. The starch is converted into polylactide acid (PLA). These plant-based plastics can’t be recycled but they can be composted either in a municipal composter or in your backyard compost heap. If they are thrown in the garbage, they will NOT compost because landfills are anaerobic (which means they lack the oxygen for anything to compost).

#7 plastics are often polycarbonate and thus linked to BPA,  #3 plastics are made from vinyl or PVC, and #6 polysterene can leach styrene, which is another possible carcinogen and hormone disrupter.

Recent research has called into question #1 plastics too. These bottles are porous and thus absorb flavors and bacteria.  Also, The National Geographic greenguide website, says “In one Italian study, the amount of DEHP, an endocrine-disrupting phthalate and a probable human carcinogen, in bottled spring water was found to increase after 9 months of storage in a PET bottle.”


The New Research Says All Plastics…

A 2011 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that “most plastic products release estrogenic chemicals.” There is no plastic product that has been proven safe for children to mouth or ingest and because of a child’s rapidly developing organ system and relative inability to detoxify. Thus pregnant women and parents of young children should take particular care to avoid plastics in and around food, plastic toys, and plastic baby bottles.

How to minimize your plastic exposure?

It is, after all, the most widely-used material in the U.S.  The obvious goal is to entirely eliminate our plastic use, but it is hard to imagine life without an iPod, a car, or fleece.  So, instead, we can aim to minimize the use of plastics, particularly when our own health is most directly at risk (such as with water bottles, food cans, and cosmetics.) In other words, PROCEEDING WITH CAUTION means knowing how to avoid the biggest exposures.

  •  If your baby uses a bottle or a sippy cup, ensure it is NOT plastic. These highly used products often contain milk which, like other high-fat and acidic foods, leach more. Ideally, get a rubber nipple, but if that’s not an option silicone is a more stable plastic.
  • Get a good, reusable, stainless steel or glass water bottle for yourself and your child and fill it with filtered water (yes, even your water, can contain plasticizers).
  • Avoid buying bottled water.  It is shipped over many miles in plastic, sits in the sun, and often is more contaminated than tap water. (Even those big jugs of water that are used in coolers are usually made from #7 plastic, linked to BPA.)
  • If you do buy plastic, choose #2, #4, and #5 or PLA plastics over the others.
  • Always avoid dishwashing, microwaving, heating, or putting hot foods inside plastic containers.
  • Plastic wraps leach plasticizers as well and can leach plasticizers into the cheese, meat, or other food product that they are wrapped around. Try an abeego instead and ask your dairy counter to use a safer alternative such as  paper.
  • Set up your kitchen to need less plastic. Buy reusable fabric sandwich bags –they cut down on a need for plastic bags—and buy a bag dryer which makes hand washing and reusing plastic baggies easy. (Ziplock bags are made from polyethelene which is a somewhat more stable plastic and do not contain dioxin or BPA. Still proceed with caution.) Here’s one place to shop for plastic-free kitchen items.
  • Avoid canned food items, especially highly acidic items like tomatoes, because most–probably all– food and beverage cans are lined with plastic and plastic is most easily broken down from acids, heat, sun exposure, and is highly absorbed into fatty products (like milk).
  • Visit the to find safer skincare products and cosmetics free from phthalates (a plasticizer also used in artificial fragrance).



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