I want you to take a minute and look around- I’d put money down that there is likely plastic near you in some way/shape/form. It makes up computer screens, food packaging, mixing bowls, drinking cups, shopping bags, kids toys, water bottles and one million other items that we encounter on a daily basis.
But, let’s be honest- plastic has made our lives easier.
- Instead of having to carry a bucket and find a well for water when traveling, we can stop at a quick convenience store and grab a water bottle.
- Allows us to carry items instead of having to bring our own bags to grocery stores
- Allows us to have cups that don’t break as easily as glass does
- Allows us to meal prep foods well ahead of time and easily store in the fridge and take on the go
- It has even replaced glass eyeglass lenses so they don’t shatter as easily
Despite the convenience, we may not realize how much our use of plastics is impacting our health. Some are going to be less impactful than others, but I think awareness around your health and use of plastics may go hand-in-hand at determining what changes you may need to make.
The Problem with Plastics
If you look around your home, you’ll see a variety of different kinds of plastics that make up your environment. Plastic makers each have their own formulas (similar to food production) and they aren’t required to disclose what makes up their product ingredient-wise.
You can look on the bottom of different plastic items and see a logo with a number in it, which many of us think determines its “recyclability.” However, this number is technically called a “resin identification code” and despite what we think, many of these numbers actually AREN’T recyclable and are simply labels to identify general classifications of plastic products.
There are different types of plastics based on what plasticizer chemicals are added to make them thin/movable or harder/stiff. These chemicals are what cause us issues as they aren’t tightly bound to the plastic and thus they easily shed out of the product and into whatever is inside of them…which usually ends up in our bodies. Four things increase this happening: heat, oil, acidity and abrasion over time.
Types of Plastics
Without getting into the weeds, below is a quick summary of the different types of plastics there are:
|♳ PETE||♴ HDPE||♵ PVC||♶ LDPE|
|most commonly used plastic|
Polyester in clothing
Plastic soda bottles + water bottles
Juice, peanut butter + condiment bottles
Frozen meal trays
Household cleaner bottles
milk + bleach jugs
thicker plastic shopping bags
|“The poison plastic”- one of the most toxic plastics|
cooking oil bottles
Frozen fruit/veggie bags
coating of inside of paper milk cartons
|♷ PP||♸ PS||♹ Others + BPA|
|Cloudy or white plastic|
yogurt and cottage cheese tubs
|One of the worst plastics|
Coffee cups (to-go)
|Harder plastics |
Grocery store receipts
Children’s drink cups
Plastic food storage bowls/lids
Health Issues of Plastics
Here’s the issue- without knowing ingredients, we aren’t informed on how certain products could impact our health. Though some plastics are said to be “better” than others, in my opinion reducing as much plastic exposure we have especially in our food, beverage and personal care products is the way to go.
The first health issue of plastics are their endocrine disrupting chemicals like phthalates that impact our hormones (endocrine disruptors), in particular our estrogens and androgens (testosterone). In fact, plastic water bottles were tested in 2011 and it was found that the estrogenic activity was 3x higher in water coming from plastic bottles. This is due to the plastic containers leaching into whatever product is in the container that we ultimately end up consuming.
These can lead to issues like:
- Fertility struggles
- Birth defects
- Developmental issues in kids
Known to be incredibly carcinogenic (cancer causing) are a byproduct of plastic manufacturing to make plastic more pliable and soft/flexible. This process includes adding not only phthalates, but heavy metals like cadmium, lead and tin to the plastics.
Many have heard of BPA but don’t realize that it is only one type of plastic or that there are many ways this specific one can impact our health. It has been found in over 93% of US people’s bodies and 99% of the exposure for children came from food.
Some health issues of BPA exposure:
- Obesity + weight gain
- Chronic gut inflammation (aka leaky gut)
- Hormone disruption
- Fertility issues- recurring miscarriages, reduced sperm count
- Birth defects + low birth weight
- Developmental disorders + hyperactivity
- Aggression, anxiety + depression
- Insulin resistance + diabetes
- Early onset of puberty
- Heart disease
- Cancers- breast, prostate
BPA is one of the highest produced chemicals in the world each year, with over 10 million pounds being produced.
BPA- Free…A Better Option?
Because of the obvious health risks associated with BPA, many consumers are now demanding BPA-free options, thinking that they are being safer. However, the replacement chemicals being used are STILL from the same family of bisphenols- chemicals like BPS and BPF and research is finding that the health effects of these are the same if not even WORSE than BPA.
What Makes them So Bad?
As mentioned earlier four things make plastics less safe and more readily “shed-able” into our products and bodies: heat, acidity, oil, and wear and tear over time.
- Every time you leave a water bottle in the car on a hot day or cases of water are transported across the country to make it to your store, the bottle is heated
- Or when you microwave your leftovers in plastic or wash plastics in hot water (aka also includes the dishwasher)
- Or when you put hot leftovers in plastics for it to be stored for later without cooling the foods prior
- Or when you put hot coffee or tea in a styrofoam or to-go cup
- The chemicals used are “lipophilic” meaning fat-loving and more easily migrate into foods that have higher fat content
- When you buy foods like oils, dressings, and mayo in plastic containers there is a higher chance of this migration happening compared to glass containers
- Ever notice that foods like tomato sauces and spaghetti seem to change the color of your plastics for good? This acidity increases the rate of shedding of the chemicals into your leftovers
- This also includes vinegar-based foods and vinegar itself
- Think about plastics that when you first got them (say a food processor bowl, blender, or just generic plastic) that was once clear now is foggy, stained or scratched. This wear and tear breaks down the plastic inside making it more released into your foods
Worst Offenders: foods with oil, acidity and that are hot!
- Pasta sauce is a really good example because it contains oil, acidity from the tomatoes and is usually still hot when you either put it in the fridge or when you reheat it in the microwave
- It didn’t just stain the plastic- the sauce is now INSIDE the plastic as the two items have essentially “merged”
Tips for Reducing Plastic Chemical Exposures
Again, we can’t avoid them totally but we can ESPECIALLY be mindful of the plastics we bring into our home and what we put into them.
Assess the plastics in your kitchen
Take a moment and go through your kitchen to find just how much plastic you actually have. Look not only at storage containers but also things like pasta strainers, cooking utensils, plastic cutting boards, etc. Once you have an idea, then start to find swaps for these items from wood, stainless steel or glass when you can.
Use glass and stainless steel as much as you can
This is actually easier than you’d think it would be- simply replace things like drinking cups, tupperware, baby bottles, kids plates/bowls, and any other item that is plastic with a version that is glass or stainless steel.
Some good companies include:
- Pura Stainless– great for kids
- LunchBots (stainless)
- Misc. Kitchen
- Swap plastic ice cube containers for silicone or stainless steel
- Swap plastic cutting boards for wood
- Swap plastic coffee makers or Keurigs for stainless (one we have + love) or glass
- Use Bee’s wrap instead of plastic wrap
For appliance items, this can be a harder thing to do, so in the case of blenders and food processors, avoid putting in anything hot or high acidity or fat content into them and do not put in your dishwasher or wash at high temps!
I’m personally looking into the new stainless Vitamix as my next kitchen upgrade. This could also mean finding a glass air fryer or other glass versions of common kitchen items.
Don’t fall for “BPA-Free”
As discussed above, they are simply swapping one bisphenol for another in the chemicals used.
Avoid canned foods
Though not technically plastic, canned foods go through a heating process, which similar to the heat/acidity/oil/time factor we’ve discussed can make certain items have more BPA chemicals inside than others. Especially avoid creamy canned soups, canned fruits, sodas and beers or tomato-based products.
Even if the cans say “BPA-free” the can makers have zero liability to tell you what they’re using as an alternative. However, there is at least one company who has gone back to ancestral ways with their can linings (Eden Foods) and is a safer alternative if you must buy canned items.
Avoid cling wraps + plastic wraps
Try to find an alternative instead of using products like these which are made with one of the worst offending types of plastic.
Avoid plastic water bottles…PLEASE!
This is one I’m passionate about because it is easily avoidable by having your own reusable bottles AND you can guarantee the quality of your water (see this post for more on water). Even though the packaging looks good, many water suppliers are sourcing their water from the tap- so not only are you getting contaminated water, you’re also getting the leaching of plastics into it! Plus, it is simply not good for the environment for all of these non-degradable bottles to end up in landfills.
Limit silicone usage to fridge/freezer and room temperature storage
Avoid using silicone baking or cooking items that would come into contact with high heat. Watch out for “greenwashing” as these products will be marketed as a safer alternative to plastics.
Try to buy sauces/condiments in glass
As we’ve discussed, items with high acidity and/or fat have a greater tendency to leach into the products inside. Because of this aim to buy your salad dressings, mayo, ketchup, nut butters, sauerkraut (high acidity), ghee, coconut butter, and all cooking oils- olive, avocado, etc. in glass or even better make it at home and store it in glass yourself!
Bring your own grocery bags + avoid touching receipts
This is non-food related, but to reduce the plastics in your home, simply begin to bring your own bags to the store. From a sustainability perspective, this is also a great choice. And this may sound silly, but avoid touching receipts- they are coated in BPA and are one exposure outside of food we don’t think about often.
Avoid plastic baby toys
Another non-food category, but what do babies and toddlers love to do? Put EVERYTHING into their mouths! Their smaller bodies also don’t have as established detoxification abilities as an adult body and so it is wise to limit the plastics they come into contact with, especially those items that would end up in their hands and mouths.
Use plastics in other areas of your life outside of the kitchen
This is where common sense comes in- if you store things like art supplies in plastics, your risk isn’t as high as storing your food in plastic or cooking with it. As mentioned, plastics have made our lives easier so this isn’t a total push to get rid of them all, just the ones that could negatively impact your health.
As always- Awareness is EVERYTHING.
One we realize how much is around us, it becomes easier to learn how to limit and avoid it. If 80% of your life is plastic-free, you don’t have to be as concerned for your hormones, bodies or families as much for the times you DO come into contact with it. Knowledge is power and can help us continue to support our health in ways outside of just diet and exercise!