Whether you’re at home or on the road, you can’t escape the fact that plastics play a big part in your life. But how do you find out if the food you’re eating, the soda you’re drinking and the goodies you’re storing in your fridge are safe to consume?
You’re in a strange city, out with a bunch of business associates and you can’t finish the finish the fancy pasta you ordered for dinner. You ask for it to packed up to go. And the restaurant hands you a PVC bag with wet pasta, telling you it’s microwaveable.
Is it really? Or should you put it on a ceramic plate in your hotel before you zap it?
Whether it’s using plastic in the microwave or the freezer, whether it’s storing food or even just reusing a bottle, plastics may be convenient to use (especially if you’re travelling), but may have deadly consequences.
We examine the different types of plastic and how safe they are, both at work, on the move and at home. If you have children, especially, you may want to pay particular attention.
Types Of Plastic
There are seven categories of plastic used in nearly all plastic containers and product packaging. It’s a good idea to check before using a container.
1. PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate ethylene, used for soft drink, juice, water, detergent, cleaner and peanut butter containers. It is a clear, tough polymer with exceptional gas and moisture barrier properties. PET’s ability to contain carbon dioxide (carbonation) makes it ideal for use in soft drink bottles.
2. HDPE: High density polyethylene, used in opaque plastic milk and water jugs, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles, and some plastic bags in order to take advantage of its excellent protective barrier properties. Its chemical resistance properties also make it well suited for items such as containers for household chemicals and detergents. Most five gallon food buckets are made from HDPE.
3. PVC or V: Polyvinyl chloride, used for cling wrap, plastic squeeze bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter containers, and detergent and window cleaner bottles. It provides excellent clarity, puncture resistance and cling. As a film, vinyl can breathe just the right amount, making it ideal for packaging fresh meats that require oxygen to ensure a bright red surface while maintaining an acceptable shelf life.
4. LDPE: Low density polyethylene, used in grocery store bags, most plastic wraps, Ziplock bags and some bottles. It offers clarity and flexibility. It is used to make bottles that require flexibility. To take advantage of its strength and toughness in film form, it is used to produce grocery bags and garbage bags, shrink and stretch film, and coating for milk cartons.
5. PP: Polypropylene, used in most Rubbermaid, deli soup, syrup and yogurt containers, straws and other clouded plastic containers, including baby bottles. A clear shatter-resistant material used in restaurant food storage containers stain-resistant home food storage containers.
6. PS: Polystyrene, used in styrofoam food trays, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, carry-out containers and opaque plastic cutlery. In its crystalline form, it is a colourless plastic that can be clear and hard. It can also be foamed to provide exceptional insulation properties. Foamed or expanded polystyrene (EPS) is used for products such as meat trays, egg cartons and coffee cups. It is also used for packaging and protecting appliances, electronics and other sensitive products.
7. Other: This is a catch-all category for plastics that don’t fit into the #1-6 categories. It includes polycarbonate, bio-based plastics, co-polyester, acrylic, polyamide and plastic mixtures like styrene-acrylonitrile resin (SAN). Number 7 plastics are used for a variety of products like baby bottles and “sippy” cups, baby food jars, 5-gallon water bottles, “sport” water bottles, plastic dinnerware and clear plastic cutlery.PP (polypropylene) has high tensile strength, making it ideal for use in caps and lids that have to hold tightly on to threaded openings. Because of its high melting point, polypropylene can be hot-filled with products designed to cool in bottles, including ketchup and syrup. It is also used for products that need to be incubated, such as yogurt. Many Cambo, Tupperware and Rubbermaid food storage containers are made from PP.
Most takeout containers, water bottles, and plastic tubs or jars made to hold margarine, yogurt, whipped topping, and foods such as cream cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard are not microwave-safe.
Microwavable takeout dinner trays are formulated for one-time use only and will say so on the package.
Don’t microwave plastic storage bags or plastic bags from the grocery store.
Before microwaving food, be sure to vent the container: Leave the lid ajar, or lift the edge of the cover.
Don’t allow plastic wrap to touch food during microwaving because it may melt. Wax paper, kitchen parchment paper, or white paper towels are alternatives.
If you’re concerned about plastic wraps or containers in the microwave, transfer food to glass or ceramic containers labelled for microwave oven use.
Things that can go wrong
The two best-studied offenders are bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. BPA mimics estrogen and disrupts hormone and reproductive system function in animals. Scientists are concerned about it’s effects on the brain, behaviour and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children. Phthalates have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system and have led to malformations in the male reproductive system in animals. Studies in humans have found associations between high phthalate exposure and a variety of health concerns including low sperm quality, high waist circumference and insulin resistance.
Tips for reducing exposure harmful chemicals in plastics
a) Know the code. Look on the bottom of your plastic to find the recycling symbol (a number between 1 and 7 enclosed in a triangle of arrows). The code indicates the type of plastic you are using and can give you important clues about safety. 1, 2, 4 and 5 are the safest. Avoid using plastics with 3 or 6, as these leach chemicals that may be harmful. Number 7 is an “other” category that includes BPA-containing plastics called polycarbonates. These plastics, which you should avoid, will have the letters PC printed underneath the 7.
b) Use it for its intended purpose. Plastics that are designed for single use should only be used once. Most plastics with recycling code number 1 are intended for single use, such as disposable water bottles.
c) Wash by hand. Only put plastics into the dishwasher if they have a dishwasher safe label. If you want to be extra-cautious, wash all plastics by hand or use only glass and ceramic plates and dishes. In the dishwasher, plastics are exposed to detergents and heat, which may accelerate the leaching of BPA from food containers.
d) Do not freeze. Only put plastics in the freezer if they have a freezer-safe label. Freezer temperatures can cause plastics to deteriorate, which increases the leaching of chemicals into the food when you take containers out of the freezer to thaw or reheat.
Source: Diane Blahut, Woman’s Day/ Harvard Health Publications