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As you’re reading this article, chances are you will find several plastic items within your reach, your computer or phone, a pen, maybe an old food container lingering on your desk. Today, plastic is everywhere in our lives. Light and durable, it has become an icon of convenience culture, a symbol of the on-the-go mentality that dominates our modern lives.
Yet for a substance that we interact with daily, we know surprisingly little about it and as we learn more, we become more and more aware of just how bad plastic is. Even now, with the flurry of BPA-free plastic products hitting the market, there are many concerns about plastic that have remained unaddressed.
A History of Modern Plastic
The term “plastic” refers broadly to any material that can be shaped or molded into a specific form. Before synthetic plastics were created, glass and clay were considered the primary “plastics,” alongside a few other naturally occurring substances like tree-gums and rubber.
Around 1907 however, a Belgian chemist by the name of Dr Leo Baekeland, introduced a unique substance called “Bakelite.” It was the first entirely man-made plastic material and it was created with phenol, an acid derived from coal tar. This new material was lightweight, strong, heat-resistant and all-the-rage at the time. Soon telephones, radios, kitchenware, jewelry, and children’s toys were all being manufactured using this newfangled substance.
Between the years 1929 and 1935, a slew of different synthetic-plastics were developed for use in industry. This list includes familiar substances such as polyester, PVC, and nylon, which are now used in merchandise as diverse as clothing and plumbing parts. Production of these compounds was vastly accelerated by mid-century war efforts, where quick-to-manufacture plastics were helpful for replacing other materials such as natural rubber, which was in short supply at the time.
When demand for plastic tapered at the end of World War II in 1945, companies scrambled to find other uses for their plastic surplus. Tupperware, the beloved food storage containers, were among the first all-plastic goods to hit the mass-consumer market when released in 1948.
Today, plastic has become the main packing material when it comes to food and product storage. There are many more types of plastic available now, all of which are produced in unique ways to fill assorted purposes. A classification system has been developed to identify the most common types of plastic used in household products. You may recognize this system as the tiny number and recycling symbol imprinted on the bottom of almost any plastic item you pick up at the store.
Common Plastic Classifications
- #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) – Products: Soft drink bottles, water bottles, condiments
- #2 high density polyethylene (HDPE) – Products: Milk and water jugs, detergent, shampoo, grocery bags, cereal box liners
- #3 polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC) – Products: Piping, shower curtains, plastic toys, table cloths, medication blister packs, wrapping films
- #4 low density polyethylene (LDPE) – Products: Wrapping films, grocery bags, paper milk cartons, hot/cold beverage cups
- #5 polypropylene (PP) – Products: Yogurt cups, food packaging, take-out containers, bottle caps
- #6 polystyrene (PS or Styrofoam) – Products: Single-use cups, plates, bowls, take-out containers, meat trays
- #7 other (can include polycarbonate or others like compostable plastics) – Products: Utensils, food storage containers
Health Concerns of Plastic
I think it is fair to say that synthetic plastics were created with a focus on industry, not on health. Over the past 50 years of plastic use, evidence has accumulated to suggest that some of the chemicals used in its manufacturing are problematic. I’ve written about this in depth before, but some of the biggest concerns are:
BPA and Alternatives
It has been well-documented that certain chemicals create hormone imbalances which produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in humans. One of the most famous substances of this kind is Bisphenol A or BPA.
Research has linked long-term BPA exposure to serious conditions including birth defects and cancer. After years of campaigning, BPA is finally being removed from many plastic items. Unfortunately, recent studies are showing that the the chemicals being used to replace it are no better. Substitutes Bisphenol S and F (known as BPS and BPF) have remarkably similar structures and potencies.
One study concentrating on BPA-free plastic baby bottles and water bottles found that each item studied released detectable amounts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Some even had more dangerous activity than products containing BPA itself.
This group of chemicals, another class of endocrine disruptors, is used to increase the flexibility of certain plastics such as PVC. One specific compound, known as Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or DEHP, is listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in the Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program.
Furthermore, high levels of exposure to this di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate through the use of medical tubing and other plastic devices for feeding and medicating newborn infants has been predicted to affect the development of the male reproductive system, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Manufacturers began to remove DEHP from consumer plastics about 10 years ago, but new research is suggesting that the two stand-in chemicals, DINP and DIDP, are just as harmful.
The health of the environment is closely intertwined with our own health. As the use of plastic has increased, so has its burden on the environment.Global plastic production has doubled every 11 years since the 1950s and currently hovers around 300 million tons per year. Processing plastic uses a significant amount of resources including electricity and fossil fuels. Moreover, unlike naturally-derived products, synthetic plastics do not biodegrade. This means that once plastic items are flung down a conveyor belt and churned out into the world they remain there, unless recycled or incinerated.
Improper disposal of solid plastic waste through techniques like incineration can lead to the release of dioxins. These highly toxic chemicals have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system and the formation of cancer. The World Health Organization has advocated for strict control over industrial and waste management processes to reduce dioxin formation.
What We Can Do to Reduce Plastic Use
As impactful as it would be, it is probably not realistic to say that everyone should get rid of all plastic items immediately and forever. The transition towards greener manufacturing materials will likely take time. What we can do however, is start with some simple steps to reduce the negative consequences that plastic has on the health of our families and communities. As smart consumers we can help drive the change through well-planned baby steps.
1. Opt for Reusable Alternatives
A big part of the solution is limiting the amount of plastic you bring into your home. Reusable water bottles and food storage containers are a great alternative as they do not leach questionable chemicals. Reusable stainless steel items such as plates, bowls, and containers are also non-reactive, and are 100% recyclable, light and inexpensive. Try making your own personal care items and store in mason jars or violet glassware rather than purchasing varieties that come in disposable packaging.
Over the past several years, our family has transitioned away from plastic almost completely by taking these baby steps. Our most-used and best-value plastic-free items are:
- Stainless Steel plates: Hands down the best option I’ve found for our kids. They are lightweight, food grade stainless steel that is dishwasher safe, oven safe and unbreakable! We have enough for a whole day of use for our family. They also store very compactly.
- Zip Top: A perfect replacement for ziplog baggies or when you are on the go!
- Stainless Steel cups: Like the plates, I love that these are unbreakable and they are a great size for our kids. TIP: store in a low cabinet so kids can get their own water.
- Stainless Steel bowls: Just like plates and cups, these unbreakable bowls are some of the most used items in our kitchen.
- Stainless Steel Latch Containers: These are my favorite for freezer storage since they are non-breakable and fit a lot.
- If you or your kids don’t love the Stainless Steel option for plates, bowls, etc, you can also check out bamboo options like these from the UK.
- Glass Mason Jars: Quart and half-gallon size jars work great for storing things like soups, sauces, broth, and even leftover casseroles and sides. We also use them as drinking glasses (bonus- it is an easy way to keep track of your daily water intake!)
- Silicon Food Storage: I love my collapsible fridge storage containers from Xtrema since they don’t take up much room in the cabinets when not in use and are easy to stack in the fridge.
- Glass and Silicone Storage: Lifeactory makes some great all-glass food storage containers that have a silicone cover to help avoid breakage
- Pyrex Glass Containers with Lids: These do have plastic lids but they are pretty inexpensive and some of the first containers I got when I made the switch.
- Glasslock Oven Safe Food Storage: I also have this set and use it all the time to store almost everything
- Other reusable items: We also have a good supply of reusable grocery bags, produce bags, and plastic bags that we use often. We also use reusable food wrap made from fabric and beeswax, which you can buy or DIY.
- Bottles: Each family member has a metal or glass water bottle that we use, especially when on the go or traveling.
2. Shop Local When Possible
It can be difficult to find plastic-free packaging at major stores as even many fruits and vegetables are pre-packaged in plastic bags. Shopping locally has many advantages and is also helpful for trying to avoid plastic. Bring your own bags, baskets or containers to avoid the need for disposable plastic bags. Your local economy and our planet will thank you!
3. Source Safer Types of Plastic & Always Recycle
Check to see what types of plastic are accepted for recycling in your community. #1 PET and #2 HDPE are known for high levels of recyclability. #4 LDPE and #5 PP plastics, although not as widely recycled, are thought to leach fewer chemicals than some other varieties. Discard any scratched and worn-out plastics and never heat food in plastic containers as this increases the likelihood of chemical release.
4. Avoid Plastics in Your Clothes
Many types of synthetic fiber clothing also contain plastics and plastic chemicals. When possible, opt for natural fiber clothing (like cotton, wool, hemp, linen, etc) over synthetics like polyester, lycra, etc. If you can, choose organic clothing when possible, especially for babies and kids.
What do you do to reduce the use of plastic in your home?
Discussion (55 Comments)
In terms of food storage, I have switched over almost 100% to glass or silicon containers. I am really very pleased with my collection, except for one thing… Every 3-4 weeks, I make a huge pot of chicken soup. Some gets eaten right away and the rest gets stored in those 1-quart containers, like the ones you get from the deli. I have not been able to find a reasonable substitute for this. I make sure that the soup is cooled before I divvy it up, and I never heat it up in the containers, but it really bugs me. Any ideas for an economically-reasonable AND healthy substitute? Thanks!
Mason jars? They come in a 1 quart variety.
Any advice? We have gotten rid of plastic dishes and plastic food storage containers a few yrs ago…but one thing that I rely on heavily are the plastic grocery bags as I reuse them for the trash cans in our 2 bathrooms…I know I could NOT put a bag in the trash cans but the idea of having to clean the icks out of the trash cans makes me feel uuuuugh! Is this just something I gotta learn to get over or does anyone have a better-earth friendly solution?
There are many different sizes of canning jars, pint, quart and also half gallon, they freeze well and also heat up well. I bought mine on Amazon. Is this what you are talking about?
Great article! I may have missed if this was mentioned in the article, but using non-plastic will also save money! Choosing not to buy garbage bags, plastic sandwich and snack bags, etc, means more money available for that real food budget we’re always trying to make the most of. Never ceases to amaze me that these items are often considered necessary by people who also say their food budget is limited. But, people are where they are in their respective journeys.
Thanks too for listing the links to the stainless steel items; the freezer-safe containers are next on my list! Be well… 🙂
I try to limit the amount of products I buy in plastic packaging, such as pasta, grains, etc (yay for bulk bins!), beauty products in glass containers, and household items packaged in recycled paper.
A couple of years ago I took a large plastic bag and went around the house filling it with all the plastic items I could find – and then tossed it all in the trash. I replaced Tupperware and Rubbermaid storage containers with Pyrex (very inexpensive at Walmart and elsewhere) and save any glass bottles and jars that we get so that we can reuse them. I also replaced plastic water bottles with a stainless steel water bottle and an Aquasana glass water bottle (which I actually prefer over the stainless steel one because the water tastes so much better from the glass bottle).
With regard to stainless steel (which I use for cookware), I would like to know if it is truly as inert since it contains nickel, which is a heavy metal.
Yes, I’m allergic to nickel, too, so stainless steel isn’t a good alternative for me either.
I’ve just thrown out all the plastic storage containers and now use all the glass jars that I’ve been getting when I purchase something like peanut butter, honey or sun dried tomatoes. There are so many different sized containers and they actually fit better in the fridge because they are tall rather than square and take up less room. It’s a bit difficult sometimes when we want to take food with us on an outing but we always manage. I feel better giving something to someone in glass as well and being it’s a used container, I don’t need to get it back when they are done with it. The kitchen is where we started, now on to the rest of the house, one room at a time.
I love this idea. It’s probably even cost effective to the larger jars of apple sauce or pickles (the really large jars) and use them for the storage of flour and other dried goods. Its a good place to start.
I do want to comment.. that one of the reason they banned glass was because of the amount of accidental cuts that come from broken jars and such. The statistics in the E.R. after glass drink bottles were banned is significant. But as a mother you can mitigate this by simply putting the bottle in a cloth bag..(so that it is removeable) so that if it does drop and break the glass is kept within the cloth bag that it is surrounded by.
This is especially good for younger children.
Here in the UK, large stores now have to charge customers 5p for a plastic bag (it became law in 2015). It has made a huge difference here. It is wonderful to see so many people bringing their own bags to shops. Only 5p per bag but wow what a difference.
Talking of supermarkets, I believe they have a LOT to answer for when it comes to the sheer amount of plastic packaging being produced and then thrown away. Here, some items are so over packaged its crazy. They should sell more loose fruit and veg and use paper more.
Love the site Katie, I read all your posts from here in rainy England and take great inspiration from it.
I live not far from you – in Ghent, Belgium. If I go in the supermarket, then in some of them vegetables are packaged each one of them in an individual packaging and that is one of the reasons to ban the shop… but we have here many small shops and markets where to buy veggies and other stuff unpackaged and where I can fill my own containers with olives, mayo etc
One more help to eliminate plastic use – bulk app – it shows (and you can add places) where food is sold without packaging.
Cheers to shopping without any waste! 🙂
Any suggestions on flooring? Obviously wood is good, but like for the bathrom, instead of vinyl? Our old bathroom floor was awful so my hubby just laid a new floor 3 months ago….but now I’m worried about the off gassing and constant bare foot skin to floor contact. (Our kitchen has the same flooring…he just did that floor 1 year ago). The rest of the house is wooden flooring.
We have ceramic tile in our bathrooms and it works well as an alternative to vinyl.
Cork tiles? We used to have them, and properly laid, they work a treat!
I am using my own bags when grocery shopping since a loooong time and in lots of stores they will still lock at you as if you are an alien by doing so.Thank you very much for bringing up plastic.USE YOUR OWN BAGS Every little helps.
Really? Look at you like an alien? Where do you,live? Don’t people realize we are drowning in plastic waste? Keep,using those cloth bags. You may educate some people along the way!
Absolutely. I’ve had that reaction, too. And we now have bylaws that require stores to charge for plastic bags- there are some stores that still don’t charge and they will tell you that, as though I’m bringing my own bags to save 5 cents. Or remind me that our community recycles plastic bags, as though it’s completely acceptable to use a bag for a single use.
So everyone believes this is just a trend, but it is something that we really need to look at. My daughter is a MS graduate from the Marine Biology School at C of Charleston and did her graduate work on plastics in the estuaries. Her study was not only eye opening but has spawned many other follow up studies. So much plastics were found in the Charleston harbor that it moved the city of Mt. Pleasant to ban the use of garbage bags at the grocery store.
My daughter and several of her graduating classmates discovered that where it may take hundreds of years for one garbage bag to completely decompose, the process begins within weeks through the sloughing off of micro-beads. It is the micro-beads that are so troublesome. They are chemical bi products that get into our environment and the study is out as to how they truly affect us. And these micro-beads are everywhere and they are, as my daughter discovered small enough to be digested by the marine life that live in the estuaries of our coastal waters.
Thanks for this timely article.
I think petrochemicals are *INSIDE* our bodies, too, unfortunately, thanks to a large part to the use of Tupperware in my generation (used for everything in the 60’s and 70’s) and also thanks to Avon for teaching us to daily apply petrochemicals to almost every part of our bodies. BTW, both of my SIL’s have worked selling products for these companies, and both have had significant health issues although they are also nonsmokers and nondrinkers. But it IS hard to completely get away from these products — for instance — the rubber at the bottom of your tennis shoe I’m sure is made from some type of it and the notebook computer I’m holding onto also is most likely made of it. So, bottom line — although I have quit using Tupperware, stopped wearing makeup, and hardly ever wear polyester, I cannot completely eliminate petrochemicals by 100%. Can you?
Ocean Plastics…. We love fish but this is #1 reason why I avoid eating it.
We both work at sea and the amount of trash that we find is heartbreaking. We try to collect the bigger pieces but it is not always easy en route.
We found a plastic island! But it was actually a sea turtle tangled in all sorts of plastics. We managed to get him onboard, and took off the plastic. We cleaned the wounds from the plastic that was so tightly wrapped around his fins. He was floating from all the plastic and obviously starving! But he swam away ok. 🙂
Thank you Wellness Mama!!!
I am also inspired by:
Bea Johnson of “Zero Waste Home”
“Trash is for Tossers” by Lauren Singer
…….They are powerful websites worth checking out!
I’m really stuck and getting stressed out! I don’t like using plastic or microwaves. My 3 year old daughter’s preschool will not warm the food up any other way, but the microwave. I also tried to decrease the effects by sending glass to at least remove the plastic issue, but it’s the school’s policy to not have glass in the building. I have tried sending lunches in a thermos and it doesn’t stay warm so they end up warming it up in who knows what! I bought a microwavable Sistema container so I at least know exactly what they are using, but I’m still not happy with this option. Her meals have to be warm because I try to match them to what the school is serving to the other kids (she is the only one who has a lunch from home, she is a vegetarian). Do you have any other suggestions? Thanks!
Maybe try using a Hydro Flask? https://wellnessmama.com/3695/hydro-flask-review/
You need to warm up the thermos first. Pour some hot water in and put the lid on and leave it for about 20 minutes. Pour out the water then add the hot food.