The toxicity of plastics is not fully understood or adequately tested. Most plastics contain chemical additives to make the plastic more pliable, or UV resistant, etc. Some of these ingredients or additives are not thoroughly tested, and other we know are harmful, like bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates (a chemical used as a plastics softener). These chemicals are both shown to be potent hormone disruptors and are increasingly linked to adverse health effects like cancer, infertility, early puberty, obesity, behavior changes, and reproductive system damages.
BPA is a chemical used to make polycarbonate plastic or items marked with the number 7 on the bottom. BPA also is used to line the inside of metal food and soda cans and can leach from the can liner into the food. Phthalates are found in number 3 plastic, made with polyvinyl chloride or PVC and marked with the number 3. In addition to the health concerns with PVC-plastic, the production of and burning of PVC plastic releases dioxin, a known carcinogen, into the atmosphere. Basically, it’s bad for us, and bad for the environment.
We also know that plastics chemicals leach into the food and water they contain. So that means, BPA, phthalates and a host of other chemicals found in plastics end up in our food and water, and eventually, our bodies. While the amount may be small, it is still of concern. In fact, plastics are considered safe not because they have been proven to be safe, only because they have not been proven to be unsafe. As EWG senior scientist Dr. Anila Jacob says, "There is very little published research on the potential adverse health effects of chemicals that leach from plastic food containers, so it's difficult to say they're safe with any degree of certainty, especially with long-term use."
The second problem with plastics is that they are an environmental nightmare. First, they are a non-renewable, fossil fuel based substance. Plastics are made from petroleum so they never ever biodegrade. In fact, every piece of plastic ever produced is still in existence in some form today. Over time (a long period of time) plastics actually photodegrade into smaller and smaller toxic pieces but never disappear. Many of these tiny pieces end up in our oceans and waterways and are eaten by marine life.
There is so much plastic in the ocean, that we have inadvertently created something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is roughly the size of Texas, containing approximately 3.5 million tons of trash, primarily plastic. In this accidental dump floating midway between Hawaii and San Francisco, plastic to sea life ratios are 6:. Birds and mammals are dying of starvation and dehydration with bellies full of plastics. Fish are ingesting toxins at such a rate that soon they will no longer be safe to eat.
“But I recycle my plastic” people argue. The fact is, most people don’t. Only 3% of the 380 billion (that’s right, billion) plastic bags used in the U.S. each year get recycled. Even if you are one of the few who does recycle your plastic waste correctly, recycling plastic is an inefficient system. It’s actually referred to as “downcycling”. Unlike aluminum or glass, plastic degrades so not only can it never be made into the same form of plastic (like a plastic water bottle into another plastic water bottle), but we also need to introduce new virgin plastic during the recycling process. So while recycling plastic is certainly better than throwing it away, it’s not the silver bullet to solve our plastics problem. If avoiding plastic completely is not practical for you, what’s the answer? I think it’s to use plastics more wisely and more sparingly. You can reduce your use of disposable plastic, and choose safer plastics, particularly for those items that are likely to come into contact with your mouth, which is the most common way the chemicals in plastic enter our bodies.
The first step to choosing safer plastics is to understand what the numbers represent. So turn your plastic container over, check out the number inside the triangle, and read on to see what those numbers mean.
Safer plastics include:
#1 PETE or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – this plastic is used for most clear beverage bottles, such as water bottles, and two-liter soda bottles. It is one of the most commonly recycled plastics on the planet. The key here is to think about the No. 1 meaning “one-time use”. So don't reuse single-use plastics. They can break down and release chemicals into your food or beverage when used repeatedly.
#2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene) - used to make most milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and laundry detergent bottles. Because No. 2 plastic has been found not to leach, Nalgene water bottles are now made from this plastic rather than No. 7 as they were previously.
#4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene) - used in most plastic shopping bags, food storage bags, some cling wraps and some squeeze bottles.
#5 PP (polypropylene) - used in opaque, hard containers, including some baby bottles, cups and bowls, and reusable storage container (i.e. Tupperware). Drinking straws, yogurt containers, and cottage cheese containers are sometimes made with this.
Avoid These Plastics:
#3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – commonly called “vinyl” is used in commercial plastic wraps and salad dressing bottles, shower curtains, and believe it or not, kids toys, backpacks, lunch bags, and binders. PVC contains phthalate (softeners need to make the plastic bend) and they have been found to interfere with hormonal development. The production of and burning of PVC plastic releases dioxin, a known carcinogen, into the atmosphere. It’s bad for our health and bad for the environment.
#6 PS (polystyrene) – used in Styrofoam cups, meat trays and “clam-shell”-type containers. No. 6 plastics can release potentially toxic materials (including styrene), especially when heated. Yep, that’s right, when heated. So that insulated Styrofoam coffee cup and the “to go” container that you put hot food in, well those don’t seem like such a good idea do they?
#7 Other - A wide-range of plastic containers are lumped into this category – basically any plastic not rated 1-6. The plastic to be concerned about in this category are the hard polycarbonate plastic bottles which contain bisphenol-A (BPA). No. 7 plastic is used in some reusable water bottles, baby bottles, and some metal can linings. Soft or cloudy colored plastic is not polycarbonate. Avoid polycarbonate, especially for children's food and drinks. Trace amounts of BPA can migrate from these containers, particularly if used for hot food or liquids.
In addition to understanding the numbers, you can also use plastics more safely:
• Don't microwave in plastic containers. Heat can break down plastics and release chemical additives into your food and drink. Use ceramic or glass instead. Cover food in the microwave with a paper towel instead of plastic wrap.
• Use plastic containers for cool liquids only, not hot.
• Don't reuse single-use plastics (the number one – PET plastics). They can break down and release plastics chemicals when used repeatedly.
• Do not use old, scratched plastic containers. Exposures to plastics chemicals may be greater when the surface is worn down.
• Wash plastics on the top rack of the dishwasher, farther from the heating element, or by hand.
• When using an electric mixer, use a glass or metal bowl instead of plastic to avoid chipping bits of plastic into your food.
• Use wooden cutting boards instead of plastic ones.
• Pick a cotton shower curtain instead of vinyl.
• Choose glass or BPA-free baby bottles with a clear silicone nipple.
• Avoid plastic to mouth contact, especially for babies and kids. Give your baby natural teethers like frozen washcloths.
• Look for toys made of natural materials, like wool, cotton, and uncoated wood.
• To avoid PVC in school supplies, check out the Center for Health Environment and Justice’s (CHEJ) Back-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies, which lists the most common back-to-school supplies made out of toxic PVC and suggests safer PVC-free products in over 20 product categories.
Finally, when rethinking and reducing your plastic, remember to recycle any that you don’t need or don’t feel safe using any more. Keep in mind that No. 1 and No. 2 are almost universally recyclable. No. 5 plastics are usually not recyclable in curbside programs. Other numbers depend upon the recycler. To simplify plastics recycling, here is the basic rule of thumb – if the plastic bottle has a neck that's smaller than the body and has "alor2" symbol on the bottom, nearly every recycling program will accept it. But please remove the caps from the bottles and throw them in the trash or participate in a program to recycle them. If left in with the recycling, those little caps can ruin a whole batch of recyclables.
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