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From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
The Scoop on Plastics
Risk ratings from No. 1 to No. 7
I’ve read that plastic bottles are not always safe to reuse over and over, as harmful chemicals can leach out into the contents. I’m wondering if the same issues plague Tupperware and other similar plastic food storage containers.
Sylvie, Dawson City, Yukon, Canada
The recent hubbub over plastic containers leaching chemicals into food and drinks has cast doubt, whether deserved or not, over all kinds of plastics that come into contact with what we ingest. Some conscientious consumers are forsaking all plastics out of health concerns. It is true that exposure to certain chemicals found in some plastics has been linked to various human health problems (especially certain types of cancer and reproductive disorders). But only a small percentage of plastics contain those chemicals.
According to The Green Guide, a website and magazine devoted to greener living and owned by the National Geographic Society, the safest plastics for repeated use in storing food are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or plastic No. 2), low-density polyethylene (LDPE, or plastic No. 4) and polypropylene (PP, or plastic No. 5). Most Tupperware products are made of LDPE or PP, and as such are considered safe for repeated use storing food items and cycling through the dishwasher. Most food storage products from Glad, Hefty, Ziploc and Saran also pass The Green Guide’s muster for health safety.
But consumers should be aware of more than just a few safe brands, as most companies make several product lines featuring different types of plastics. While the vast majority of Tupperware products are considered safe, for example, some of its food storage containers use polycarbonate (plastic No. 7), which has been shown to leach the harmful hormone-disrupting chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) into food items after repeated uses. Consumers concerned about such risks might want to avoid the following polycarbonate-based Tupperware products: the Rock ’N Serve microwave line, the Meals-in-Minutes Microsteamer, the Elegant Serving Line, the TupperCare baby bottle, the Pizza Keep ’N Heat container and the Table Collection (the last three are no longer made but might still be kicking around your kitchen).
Beyond BPA, other chemicals can be found in various food storage containers. Containers made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE, or plastic No. 1) such as most soda bottles are OK to use once but can leach carcinogenic, hormone-disrupting phthalates when used over and over again. Also, many deli items come wrapped in plastic made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or plastic No. 3), which can leach cancer-causing dioxins. Swapping foods out of such wraps once the groceries are at home is advisable.
Containers made of polystyrene (PS, or plastic No. 6, also known as Styrofoam) can also be dangerous, as its base component, styrene, has been associated with skin, eye and respiratory irritation, depression, fatigue, compromised kidney function and central nervous system damage. Take-out restaurant orders often come in polystyrene containers, which also should be emptied into safer containers once you get them home.
If your head is spinning and you can’t bear to examine the bottom of yet another plastic food storage container for its recycling number, go with glass. Pyrex, for instance, does not contain chemicals that can leach into food. Of course, such items can break into glass shards if dropped. But the risk of breakage is a fair trade against the risk of chemical contamination.
For more information:
• The Green Guide: www.thegreenguide.com
• Tupperware: www.tupperware.com.
Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek: or e-mail [email protected]. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.