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Avoiding Plastic  

Avoiding Plastic

OK people. It’s time to get serious about avoiding plastic. Why? Because based on decades of research - there’s no such thing as nontoxic, safe plastic.

Ya see, plastics are made from dozens of different chemicals. Which wouldn’t be a problem except that:

  • Many of these chemicals aren’t bonded to the plastic and easily leach from it into your food, water and indoor air. For example, styrene can leach from a styrofoam cup.
  • Many of the chemicals that leach are toxic and can damage your health.

How Plastic is Made

Plastics are made by taking single molecules called monomers and combining them through a process called polymerization into polymers. For example, many monomers of styrene are combined to create polystyrene (poly meaning many). The monomers used to make many synthetic plastics are synthesized from either petroleum or (more commonly) natural gas.

The polymers are then combined with additives and made into pellets to form base resins. Some of these base resins can be used as is, such as BPA based polycarbonate and polypropylene. Base resins can also be mixed with other resins and additives to form plastic compounds. The additives that are used include phthalates, used to soften plastics, and antioxidants, to prevent plastic from degrading.

Types of Plastic Used for Food and Beverages

The majority of plastics used for food and beverage containers, food storage and small appliances are:

PETE or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) -  used to make clear plastic water, soda and sports drink bottlescondiment and salad dressing bottles, microwavable packaging, and pretty much every grocery store item in plastic jars

HDPE (high density polyethylene) – milk jugs

LDPE (low density polyethylene) – bottles, plastic bags, plastic wrap

PP (polypropylene) – yogurt containers, straws, bottle caps

PS (polystyrene) – coffee pods, food containers, disposal utensils, plates, food packaging, vending cups

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – coffee makers and some other small appliances

PC (polycarbonate) – water and baby bottles, food storage containers, some beverage containers, small appliances

Why There’s No Such Thing as Safe Plastic

Plastics are made of mixtures of thousands of chemicals. The exact chemicals used are considered trade secrets and are not disclosed. In other words, every type of plastic contains unknown chemicals.

In fact, in a 2019 study, researchers analyzed 34 everyday plastic products made of eight types of plastic. They detected more than 1,000 chemicals in these plastics, 80 percent of which were unknown. 

And surprisingly High toxicity was detected in all “bioplastics”, the new , biodegradable plastics made of polylactic acid (PLA).

We know plastic isn’t chemically stable. The chemicals used to make plastics, the monomers, additives, preservatives and plasticisers can all end up leaching into your food and drinks.

The leaching increases as plastic starts to degrade and when it is exposed to heat and sunlight. And many of these chemicals can be toxic to your health.

Many chemicals that leach from plastic are toxic. In the same 2019 study researchers reported seventy-four percent of the products they tested were toxic in some way. Plastics are known for leaching chemicals that have estrogenic activity, called endocrine disrupters (EDs) and some are carcinogens.

Plastic Chemicals And Your Health

BPA-Free is BPA-Like

Because the dangers of BPA are well known most people look for plastic labeled BPA free. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security when using BPA-free plastics. Removing BPA does not make a plastic food or beverage container safe.

Why? First, because other chemicals besides BPA leach from plastic. And second because the BPA in plastics has been replaced with other, similar chemicals. And  tests have found that BPA replacement chemicals have the same ability to leach hormone-altering chemicals.

A private lab in Austin tested 50 reusable BPA-free plastic containers. It found that after exposure to the type of ultraviolet rays that are found in sunlight and used to sterilize baby bottles (UVC), more than three-quarters of the containers released synthetic estrogens.

The researchers concluded: “Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled—independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source—leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA (estrogenic activity), including those advertised as BPA-free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than did BPA-containing products.”

Endocrine disrupting chemicals disrupt the normal functioning of your endocrine system. This system regulates your body’s functions through a network of glands (thyroid gland, ovaries, etc.) and the hormones (insulin, estrogen, etc.) they produce. Hormones bind to receptors in organs and tissues that recognize and respond to specific hormones.

Endocrine disrupters can disrupt the normal functioning of these chemical messengers by blocking them from binding to receptors or by taking their place. This can alter hormone levels, stop or increase the production of hormones or change the way hormones move throughout your body.

Because these chemicals mess with your hormones they are linked to cancer, developmental problems, diabetes, obesity, the metabolic syndrome, infertility and subfertility.”

Besides endocrine disruptors, there are several chemicals that leach from plastic that cause cancer by damaging your DNA, causing inflammation and promoting tumor growth.

The EDs and carcinogens in plastic include:

Antimony: possible human carcinogen, developmental and reproductive toxin.

BHT/BHA: BHA is anticipated to be a human carcinogen by the National Institutes of Health, while BHT has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, and been shown to interfere with normal reproductive system development and thyroid hormone levels in animals.

BPA and BPA substitutes: endocrine disrupter linked to asthma, breast, liver and prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease, infertility, and obesity. It is also thought to cause behavioral changes in children. In my opinion one of the scariest aspects of BPA exposure is that in some cases, its effects appear to be handed down. This means the chemical reprograms an individual's genes and causes disease in future generations.

Phthalates: endocrine disrupters linked to diabetes, infertility, obesity, allergies and asthma, altered toddler behavior.

Styrene: probable human carcinogen, central nervous system toxin.

Vinyl chloride – a human carcinogen linked with liver, brain and lung cancers and lymphoma and leukemia.

A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2011 found after examining 500 different types of plastic food containers that “data suggest that almost all commercially available plastic items would leach detectable amounts of chemicals having estrogenic activity once such items are exposed to boiling water, sunlight, and/or microwaving.”

Top Tips For Avoiding Plastic

Identifying why you need to avoid plastic is the easy part. Avoiding plastic in a world that’s full of it is not easy. But you can at least reduce your exposure to toxic plastic. And when it starts to get difficult just remember – There’s no such thing as Nontoxic Plastic.

Let’s start with some important sources of plastic chemical exposure – Food, Water and Your Home.

Food Prep and Storage

When you open your kitchen cabinets does a bunch of plastic containers and lids come tumbling out? If so, this is a good place to start. It’s also one of the easiest ways to avoid plastic because there are plenty of better options.

When you open my kitchen cabinets you’ll find lots of different sizes of Pyrex and wide-mouth canning jars with stainless steel lids (wide-mouth are easier to clean and fill). Also, 3 glass measuring cups – 2, 4 and 6 cup – that I use for meal prep and mixing.

But NO plastic.

I’ve lived in several different tiny spaces for about 5 years. So, everything I have needs to be ultra functional, especially in the kitchen. You can bake, heat and freeze in Pyrex and canning jars.

Stainless Steel Food Storage Containers with Silicone Lids are also a good option. Be sure to purchase high quality, food grade 304 stainless steel of 18-8 or 18-10 quality. The other things I use, mainly for freezing, are tinfoil and Instead of Ziploc plastic bags try Reusable Silicone food storage bags.

Replace plastic wrap with Bee's Wrap food wrap. I also have some Silicone stretch lids for covering items in the fridge.

Just don’t heat or bake anything in silicone. Based on research I’ve read so far, when used at temperatures above 200° F silicone cookware releases VOCs into your air and siloxanes into your food.

Fresh Produce

Buy loose unpackaged fresh produce and bring it home in organic cotton produce bags. These allow the cashier to see the item you are purchasing through the bag and they keep your produce fresh longer because they allow the items to breathe.

FYI – It’s hard to find loose organic produce. It’s usually packaged in plastic. Go figure!

Cheese and Meats 

On the surface the solution for avoiding plastic for cheese and deli meats would be the deli counter. Getting the deli clerk to slice up what you want and bringing your own container or beeswax wrap.

Well, I don’t know about you guys, but when I stand at the deli counter of every grocery store I’ve ever been in, all I see are rows of deli meat and cheese wrapped in – wait for it- PLASTIC!

So, the damage has been done. I don’t eat lunch meat but I still haven’t found a good solution for cheese, except to befriend a cheese maker.

Condiments, Sauces, Salad Dressings, Nut Butters, Jams, Honey, etc

This change is all about compromise. Your favorite brand of mustard probably comes in a plastic container. Well, it’s time to suck-it-up and find a mustard you like in a glass jar.

You should be able to find glass packaged substitutes for all the items in this category. This is especially important for acidic items, such as anything that contains vinegar and tomatoes.

Surprisingly though, I’ve had to forgo buying many organic condiments and nut butters because they use plastic. I always go with nonorganic in glass jars and bottles.

Frozen Food

If you’re a fan of pre-packaged frozen food you can’t avoid plastic. Your only option is to freeze your own fruits and veggies.  

It’s not as time-consuming as it sounds. When you’re chopping up produce for a recipe just chop some extra to freeze. And every time you make a batch of something – from steel cut oats to farro and veggies – freeze individual portions in canning jars for ready-made meals.

And if you do regularly shop the frozen aisle, I’m a big fan of frozen veggies, console yourself with the knowledge that for the entire length of their journey from food processing plant to grocery store they are kept frozen.

So, temperature is not a factor in leaching. Also, I found one study that tested the leaching of endocrine disrupters from frozen produce bags and did not find any.

Just don’t cook ANYTHING in the container it comes in. Empty the contents into glass or stainless to heat.

Processed and Prepared Food

Grocery stores have aisles and aisles of processed food like cereals, macaroni and cheese, brownie mix, and bread that come packaged in plastic. To avoid all that plastic you have a couple of choices.

First, for your health, cut back on processed and prepared foods with their long list of unnatural ingredients.

Second, some of these items can be created from scratch using the base ingredients purchased in bulk or in glass containers. Get a good Meals In A Jar Cookbook, set aside some time and have fun stocking your pantry with healthy convenience meals in canning jars.

Third, since convenience and time savings make processed foods so appealing, be smart about your choices. Pick the healthiest options and shop the natural and organic section of your supermarket.

Also, you can check with your supermarket about the prepared foods made directly on site at the grocery store. See if any can be purchased without plastic.

Bread would be a good example. Bring your own bread bag or ask for a paper bag.

Beverages in Plastic Bottles

Beverage bottles are also made of PET and numerous studies have documented the leaching of plastic chemicals from PET bottles into water and soda.

Storage time, storage temperature and acidity all play a role in the toxins that leach from plastic beverage bottles. Does it sound like a good idea to you to put acidic fruit juices and tomato juice in plastic bottles? Or transport beverages in trucks on hot summer days?

A 2018 study found high levels of DEHP and DMP phthalates that leached into plastic bottles of Coke.  The study also reported heat and longer storage of soft drinks in plastic increased the content of leached phthalates in the drinks.

The solution to avoiding plastic bottled water is to invest in a good water filter (I use the Big Berkey) and some non toxic water on the go bottles. At home, try fruit-infused home-filtered water. I like to pour filtered water into a gallon infuser and add organic lemon slices and strawberries.

For fruit and vegetable juice, look for brands that use glass bottles. My personal preference is juice made by Santa Cruz Organic, Lakewood and R.W. Knudsen. If your local grocery store doesn’t carry these brands, they are available here.

The best way to avoid the plastic chemicals in soda bottles is to stop drinking soda. For better options check out Top 10 Reasons To Stop Drinking Soda.

Avoiding Plastic In Your Home

Leaching from plastic food and beverage containers isn’t the only way your exposed to plastic chemicals. There are quite a few plastic items you use that are a source of indoor air pollution and toxic dust bunnies.

This is especially true of products like plastic shower curtains, table clothes, flooring and pillow and mattress protectors.

These products, made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), off gas toxic chemicals like phthalates and the carcinogen vinyl chloride.

To avoid vinyl in your home, choose cloth shower curtains and table clothes. And definitely invest in cotton, organic is best but expensive, or wool pillow and mattress protectors. You don’t want to be seeping on vinyl, EVER!

And instead of vinyl flooring opt for natural linoleum and ceramic tile.

Please don’t forget about all those plastic storage containers in your home. As they degrade, they release plastic chemicals into your air and the products stored in them, like your clothes and bedding.  Sunlight from a window or high heat in a garage accelerates the release.

My cheap solution for storage is tough cardboard produce boxes from markets, restaurants and grocery stores. Or you can buy them here. I’ve been using the same ones for the past 15 years and there’re still in great shape.

And they fit great under beds. To keep dirt and dust out I place then in canvas laundry bags

Another option is to buy cloth zippered containers and place cardboard boxes inside to give them structure.

Let's face facts. Avoiding plastic is difficult. And avoiding all plastic is impossible. But you can reduce your exposure to plastic chemicals. 

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