Plastics are everywhere these days and they aren’t great for our health. This simple guide to plastics will help you understand what are the different types of plastics, how they can influence your health and what healthier options are out there.
The trouble with plastics
- We throw away so many plastics and they end up polluting our environment.
- Very few plastics get recycled.
- Plastics are made with man-made chemicals and can negatively impact our health.
- Plastics are found everywhere these days and our kitchens don’t make an exception – food processor bowls, spatulas, cups, mixing bowls, food storage containers, etc.
- As a society, we’ve become dependent on using plastics, but there are ways to safely avoid or replace them.
- Plastics aren’t even cost effective and they actually end up costing us more money than expected. Think about plastic bags, food containers, water bottles, soda bottles, yogurt containers, etc.
Types of plastics
Plastics are made up of a string of polymers and chemicals that determine the qualities and the overall appearance of each type of plastic. They can be hard or soft, flexible, clear, colored, or opaque.
The only way we can categorize plastics is by reading the numbers “printed” on each plastic item. This number is usually written at the bottom or inside the container/bottle. These numbers range from 1 to 7:
- PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate) or PET – the thin plastic used for soda or water bottles, or containers like ketchup or mustard bottles, some jam containers, cheap nut butters, etc.
- HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) – a much more thick plastic used for bottle caps, some food storage containers, cutting boards, some plastic bags, milk jugs.
- PVC or Vinyl – softer plastics like cling wrap, squeeze bottle or cooking oil bottles, also used on many items outside the kitchen (garden hoses, shower curtains).
- LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) – another soft plastic used in grocery store bags, most of the plastic wraps, some types of bottles.
- PP (Polypropylene) – used in yogurt or cheese containers, straws, deli containers, disposable food containers.
- PS (Polystyrene) – used in styrofoam food trays, disposable cups, egg cartons, and carry out containers.
- OTHERS – usually refers to Polycarbonate, a solid type of plastic found basically everywhere – food processor bowls, mixing bowls, hard water bottles, clear travel cups, children’s drinking cups, carafes, solid food containers that you carry around.
Are these all bad? Yes and No
- Worst numbers and the ones to avoid are: #3, #6 and #7
- Numbers #5, #4, #2, and #1 are safer options.
- Note that there’s research showing that #1 is not very safe to use.
How are plastics made?
Plastics are made of a string of polymers, mixed together in a specific way to create different types of plastics. Chemicals known as “plasticizers” are added to give plastic certain characteristics (hard, soft, pliable, dense, transparent, opaque, heat resistant, etc). These plasticizer chemicals are not tightly bound from a molecular standpoint which means they can easily shed or migrate out of the materials into the surrounding area. They are in a constant state of always falling off and slowly shedding into the environment.
Most people know that BPA is the chemical to blame for all the negative effects associated with plastics. The reality is that BPA is used only for Plastics #7 (OTHERS / Polycarbonate), meaning it’s the chemical that gets the biggest exposure. There are various other chemicals used with all types of plastics, most of which aren’t disclosed to us by the companies that produce plastics.
The 5 environmental factors that can affect plastics
I was explaining above that plastics are in a constant state of changing. There are a few factors that increase the rate at which chemical molecules shed or migrate out of the plastics.
Heat – plastics should not be heated in any way as heat will alter their molecular structure.
Oil – oils can eat away the plastics, especially essential oils which are very strong.
Acidity – no acidic foods should be stored or used in plastics, since acid solutions increase the rate of which the plastic molecules shed.
Abrasion – plastics should not be scratched since this can easily alter their molecular structure.
Time – all plastics will crack or break down, eventually; compared to glass, plastics have a very short life span.
Health effects associated with plastics
All the chemicals released through the factors stated above fall into the category of “endocrine disrupting chemicals”.
From all plastic chemicals used, BPA is probably the most talked about of the plastics additives. It gets the most exposure because it’s used in all things related to kitchen items.
BPA concerns us because it has what we call an Estrogenic Activity (EA), meaning it mimics the hormone estrogen in the body. BPA is a synthetic estrogen, having the ability to block or mimic natural estrogen in the body. It has the power to disrupt the entire endocrine system, hence the name “endocrine disrupting chemical”.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals are associated with various serious medical conditions, most of which are common in our present times.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals vs Health
The list of diseases associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals is big and should concern everyone who cares about health. According to studies done in recent years, these synthetic estrogens are associated with many chronic diseases, most of which harm people their entire lives.
Let’s take a brief look at the most common diseases associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals:
- metabolic disorders like diabetes, insulin resistance, and obesity
- heart disease
- childhood asthma
- breast cancer
- prostate cancer
- recurrent miscarriages
- early onset of puberty
- reduced sperm count
- male birth defects
- low birth weight
- developmental behavioral issues like ADHD and impaired learning
- increases in hyperactivity and aggression
- anxiety and depression
How about BPA-Free products?
In the last few years, we’ve seen more and more products labeled as BPA-Free. Are these safe of harmful endocrine disrupting chemicals, or are they just another link in the chain? Truth being told, there are a few issues with BPA-Free plastics and I’ve listed most of them below:
- Not all plastics contain BPA, only Plastics #7.
- This means that for Plastics 1-6 there’s no point in talking about BPA-Free. These plastics (1-6) are “naturally” BPA-Free but this doesn’t mean they’re safe for our health.
- We can only talk about BPA and BPA-Free when we talk about Plastics #7.
- BPA-Free means companies have now replaced BPA (bisphenol A) with other chemicals in the same family, namely bisphenol-s or -f.
- There are even fewer studies about these new chemicals, so we can’t say if they’re safe to use or not.
- We’re not even talking about the environmental impact, namely all plastics are a waste polluting the environment.
- Companies charge us more money because their products are now labeled as BPA-Free. This should make us feel safer and happy to use these new products that we don’t know anything about.
- Companies should address the issue of Estrogenic Activity and whatever a certain plastic (regardless if it’s BPA-free or not) impacts our endocrine system.
- We want to avoid plastics because they contain endocrine disrupting chemicals that are linked to many chronic health issues.
Alternatives to plastics
As a society, we have become so dependent on plastics that it’s hard to imagine living without them. And while some plastics we use turn out to be very useful in our day-to-day life, the plastics associated with our food system are not healthy. Good news is they can easily be replaced with healthier alternatives (as I’m going to show you later).
It’s also true that plastics are very cheap and available everywhere, but we have to think about their health implications in the long run. Ask yourself if your health it’s worth the health risks associated with plastics?
Depending on your needs, you can safely replace most of the plastics you have in your kitchen right now with safer alternatives. Maybe you won’t be able to replace all of them, but for most you can easily find safer alternatives.
There are 5 well-known materials that you could use instead of plastics:
- Stainless Steel
Let’s see why they’re superior to plastics and where you could use them instead of plastics.
- has been around for ages.
- will not leach chemicals into food.
- can be safely used in the fridge or in the oven (Pyrex glass).
- it’s cheap to buy and easily available almost everywhere.
- you can buy many types of jars and dishes to store and transport food.
- glass has been traditionally used for preserves since forever, so it’s a proven material.
- you can even buy fashionable water bottles that can be reused over and over again.
- nowadays, cast-iron pots have a special glass layer inside; this adds non-stick properties to the original cast-iron pots (and it’s very safe to use compared to non-stick teflon which has its own associated health issues).
- glass is very easy to clean with plain water, baking soda or natural soap.
- will not leach chemicals into your food.
- stainless steel is very durable and can also be used with hot food.
- you can easily find stainless steel cooking pots and utensils everywhere.
- stainless steel comes in different grades, 18/0 (iron based),18/8 (durable and affordable) and 18/10 (best you can buy).
- you can’t cook very acidic foods in stainless steel because it can draw the nickel out of them and your foods will end up tasting bad.
- water bottles made from stainless steel are a great choice, plus they don’t break easily like glass does.
- pans made from stainless steel and aluminium look almost the same – pay special attention and only buy those made from stainless steel. You don’t want to get your food in contact with aluminium.
- like glass, stainless steel is very easy to clean with water and baking soda.
- traditionally, ceramics were used for cooking, especially in the oven.
- these days we can even find pans made from ceramic materials.
- ceramic does not leak nasty chemicals into the food so it’s safe for cooking and serving.
- white ceramic is the safest type since painted ceramics can contain traces of heavy metals (lead, cadmium).
- very warm colored ceramic or painted ceramics are a red flag for heavy metals like cadmium or lead.
- easy to clean with water and baking soda.
- traditionally, wood has been used to make cooking utensils and cutting boards.
- actually there’s an entire list of kitchen utensils that were traditionally made from wood.
- search for items made from plain unpainted wood.
- some plates made from wood are treated with resins to make them shiny and supposable to protect them – unfortunately these aren’t safe for eating, as the resins used are unstable to heat and simply toxic.
- cleaning wood is not an issue, just use plain water and/or baking soda and make sure to dry them naturally by placing them in a vertical position.
- silicone is a hybrid material, a mixture of synthetic rubber and plastic.
- silicone has many uses, from medical uses to food, to constructions, etc.
- personally, I am not confident of using silicone with heat, but otherwise I believe it’s ok to use almost anywhere.
- medical grade silicone is the best and safest type I know of.
- if it smells in any way, I won’t use it with my food.
- look for reputable brands and you should be ok.
- you’ll find silicone in water bottle caps, lid gaskets or any glass or stainless steel items that come with some sort of leech proof solution.
- silicone is non-porous and can be cleaned easily with water, baking soda or natural soap.
Plastics are everywhere these days and, unfortunately for us, they aren’t great for our health. While the plastic in your car will probably not make you sick, the food containers that you’re using to store food in will most likely harm you. This is true for all food containers, bottles, baby bottles, food wrappings, etc. Besides, single use plastics are polluting our environment to where we need to do something about it and fast.
Replacing plastics with safer materials like glass, stainless steel, ceramics, wood and even silicone can have a positive impact on your health and on the environment. Let’s stop for a minute and think about how much plastic we use daily, and where we might replace it with one of the safer and more durable materials.
Talking about health and the use of plastics in our kitchens, we need to move away from plastics towards safer, healthier, and sustainable materials. I hope that you’ll be using this article as a starting point to make small changes that have the potential to improve your health in the long term. There’s no doubt that plastics are a threat to our health, and it’s up to us to make the changes that count.
I would love to know what’s your opinion on plastics? Are you using many plastics in your kitchen or have you made the switch to safer materials?
- Lara Adler, “Tools for Teaching Toxicity” course
- Lara Adler, How to Reduce Single Use Plastics
- Mind Body Green, Silicone Vs. Plastic: What’s The Difference & Is One Safer?
- My Plastic Free Life, 100 Steps to a Plastic-Free Life
- Mercola, The Terrible Truth About Plastic You Never Knew
- Baby Green Thumb, Safe Plastic Numbers (Guide)
- Mercola, How to Recognize the Plastics That are Hazardous to You
- CBC Canada, Phthalates: Soft plastic’s hidden hazard
- My Plastic Free Life, BPA-Free Does Not Mean Safe
- The Guardian, Food packaging is full of toxic chemicals
- YouMeMindBody, Why You Should Avoid These 3 Types of Plastics
- The Nourished Life, How to Find the Healthiest, Safest Cookware