How to Choose and Use Plastic Wisely

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If you can’t give up plastic altogether, learn which plastics to avoid and how to lessen the harm from the plastics you do use.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to have plastic in the house. While it’s been a revolutionary material, it also contains harmful chemicals and has become a source of enduring pollution that the planet will struggle with for ages. Goal number one should be avoiding plastic altogether; but given its ubiquity, that might be next to impossible for some. In that case, choosing and using plastics carefully to minimize your exposure may be the next best thing to shunning them completely.

Unfortunately, the toxicity of plastics is still a bit of a mystery. What we do know is that most plastics contain chemical additives to create certain qualities for specific uses. And things like bisphenol-A (BPA) and the plastic softeners known as phthalates, for example, are known to be toxic; they are both potent hormone disruptors that are increasingly linked to health effects like brain and behavior changes, cancer, and reproductive system damages, notes the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

With so many different kinds of plastics used for so many different things in our homes, where does one start in trying to have a healthier relationship with the material? EWG has put together a lot of information on the subject, much of which I have used as a source here.

Start with the plastic items that touch your mouth

"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." – Former EWG senior scientist Dr. Anila Jacob

The easiest route for plastic chemicals to enter the body is via the mouth; given all the plastic used in the kitchen and in the context of eating and drinking, that’s a bummer. Especially for children, who are often given plastic things to eat and drink from, and who love to put everything in their mouths.

Plastics to avoid

Toys marked with a 3 or "PVC" (AKA polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as vinyl). PVC is frequently mixed with phthalates, a toxic additive that gives it its supple flexibility. EWG notes: "While phthalates were recently banned in new children's toys, they may be in toys made before Feb. 2009 when the ban went into effect, as well as in shower curtains, inflatable beach toys, raincoats and toys for children older than 12."

Polycarbonate containers (often marked with a 7 or "PC"). This rigid and clear plastic is used for food storage containers and water bottles, among other things. The problem here is BPA, which makes the material very sturdy, but can also leach from the plastic and into something you consume. Particularly when the container is used for hot food or liquids. (Soft or cloudy-colored plastic does not contain BPA.)

From EWG: "A recent study from Harvard University found that college students drinking their cold drinks from polycarbonate bottles had 93% more BPA in their bodies than during the weeks that they drank liquids from other containers. EWG recommends the use of glass and ceramic instead of plastic when you can."

If plastic is the only option, try to find plastics marked with a 1, 2, 4, or 5.

Handle plastics with care

• Do not use plastic containers in the microwave – even if they say that they are "microwave safe." Heat can "break down plastics and release chemical additives into your food and drink," says EWG. "Microwaves heat unevenly, creating hot spots where the plastic is more likely to break down."

• Likewise, do not use plastic containers for hot liquids.

• Single-use plastics should not be used again; they can break down and release chemicals when used more than once.

• Be wary of old and/or scratched plastic water bottles; a worn surface could lead to more chemical exposure.

• Wash plastics on the top rack of the dishwasher or by hand to reduce wear.

• Keep plastic electronics (the remote, your cell phone) away from babies' mouths, regardless of how nice it might feel for them to teethe on your iPhone; the device might be treated with fire retardants.

Safer alternatives

EWG provides these tips:

  • Use glass or BPA-free baby bottles with a clear silicone nipple for babies.
  • EWG recommends giving your baby natural teethers like frozen washcloths or natural, uncoated wood. "Plastic teethers could have harmful additives that leach when chewed."
  • Avoid baby toys made of plastic; seek out toys made of natural materials, like wool, cotton, and uncoated wood.
  • Use ceramic or glass food containers to store and heat food.
  • Don't use plastic bowls with an electric mixer, they beat up the bowl and could send bit of plastic into the mix.
  • Use wooden cutting boards instead of plastic; make sure to care for them properly though.
  • If you use a microwave, cover food with a paper towel instead of plastic wrap.
  • Pick a cotton shower curtain instead of vinyl.
  • In the tub, play with cotton washcloths, finger puppets, wooden toy boats and lightweight aluminum cups instead of soft plastic bath toys and books.
  • See more healthy home information at EWG, and TreeHugger has many, many more tips on plastic that you can find in the related stories below.