Plastic packaging, whether reusable or disposable, is a popular choice because it's convenient, lightweight and unbreakable and it keeps foods fresh. According to a report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Smart Plastics Guide – Healthier Food Uses of Plastics for Parents and Children, there are environmental and health risks associated with this widespread use.
First and foremost, most plastic is made from petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource. Plastic is also difficult to recycle. The plastic that does get discarded is bulky and takes up a disproportionate amount of landfill space.
From a health perspective, the IATP report notes that using plastic for cooking or storing food can pose serious health risks. Even though it is known to pollute food, plastic is classified as packaging, and therefore doesn't need approval from the Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada.
For example, certain plastics contain hormone-disrupting chemicals that can leach into food and beverages. According to the report, "Leaching increases when plastic comes into contact with oily or fatty foods, during heating and from old or scratched plastics."
To balance convenience with environmental and health concerns, the IATP report makes the following recommendations:
Avoid using plastic containers in the microwave. Chemicals are released when plastic is heated. The best bet is to use ceramic or glass containers for reheating. If you have no other alternative, use plastic that is noted as "microwave safe."
Beware of cling wraps, especially for microwave use. The IATP recommends using waxed paper or a paper towel as a safer alternative.
Use alternatives to plastic packaging whenever possible. This is easier said than done, particularly when packing up school lunches. Old-fashioned waxed paper is a safe and inexpensive way to wrap sandwiches. Purchasing a metal lunch kit from the army surplus store may hold a certain appeal for teens. The trick is to make sure the containers actually are returned home for refilling.
Avoid bottled water. Perhaps the single greatest marketing hoax ever perpetrated on the buying public has been the promotion of bottled water. This $ 100 billion dollar a year industry is significantly less regulated than public utilities. The result is that tap water is usually safer than the stuff we're willing to pay big bucks for.
If you really must carry water with you, take adequate precautions. Popular polycarbonate bottles (sold by brand names such as Nalgene) have been shown to leach Bisphenol A, a nasty endocrine disrupting chemical. Bisphenol-A has been associated with alterations in brain chemistry and structure, behaviour, the immune system, male and female reproductive systems, and it is suspected of promoting breast cancer. To reduce the risk, don't use polycarbonate bottles for hot or warm liquids. Discard old or scratched bottles.
The best bet is to purchase a stainless steel water bottle. Make sure that it doesn't have a plastic liner.
Disposable plastic water bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate ethylene (better known as PETE or #1) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE or #2) are recommended for single used only.
The IATP recommends that any plastic containers should be washed thoroughly with mild soap before reuse to reduce bacterial contamination. The report also cautions that harsh detergents can breakdown plastics and increase the risk of chemical leaching.
If that wasn't enough to completely put you off your lunch, the IATP recommends that you get to know your plastics, which can be identified by the number located inside the recycling logo on the bottom of most containers. Avoid those that pose the greatest risk to health.
The most dangerous are considered to be #3 (polyvinyl chloride), which is used in some cling wraps and bottles, #6 (polystyrene), used in foam trays, coolers, carry out containers and egg cartons, and #7 (indicates other plastics, including polycarbonate and mixed materials), used in sports water bottles, baby bottles and the liners of cans and some metal water bottles.
The report, Smart Plastics Guide – Healthier Food Uses of Plastics for Parents and Children is available from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. The IATP promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.
Healthy Child Healthy World is dedicated to protecting the health and well being of children from harmful environmental exposures by educating parents to make responsible decisions.