A lot of plastic hides in objects that many people don’t realize contain plastic: plastic that coats and lines cartons and cans and caps and lids. Plastic that can’t be separated from the material it’s attached to. Here’s a rundown of some of them.
Paper milk cartons are lined with two layers of polyethylene, inside and out. Many people are under the mistaken belief that these cartons are waxed. In fact, although the original paperboard milk cartons were coated with paraffin wax, they haven’t contained wax since the 40’s when polyethylene became the waterproofing material of choice.
Here is a diagram of how they are made, directly from Elopak’s web site.
The point is that if it’s made from paper these days, and it holds liquids, it’s generally going to be coated with plastic. As far as I know, there’s no ice cream container that’s not coated with a petroleum-based plastic, although there are manufacturers experimenting with bio-based plastic coatings.
So choosing paper cups and paper plates does not necessarily mean plastic-free. Cups are always coated with a layer of polymer film to make them waterproof. Plates may or may not be coated with plastic. You can tell if they are shiny or not and if wet food soaks through them or not. Georgia Pacific’s Dixie Brand (pictured) contains a “Soak-Proof Shield.” Their site does not reveal what the shield is made from, but you can be sure it’s plastic.
There is a new paper cup being used by Tully’s and a few other coffee houses called the Ecotainer. It’s coated with NatureWorks PLA, a corn-based plastic, rather than petro-plastic. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of new, more environmentally-friendly options, as they are fully compostable (the cups, that is; not the lids.) Still, disposable is disposable; NatureWorks PLA is produced by Dow Chemical and Cargill; growing corn in this country, most of which is GMO, is fraught with its own environmental hazards; and bringing your own is always the best choice.
Moving on from paper products, we come to cans. There’s been a lot of news lately about the fact that most food cans are lined with polycarbonate, which has been found to leach Bisphenol-A. And the few BPA-free cans are lined with another kind of plastic coating. So buying canned foods is not a way to remain plastic-free.
Neither is buying canned soda! Aluminum soda cans also contain a BPA plastic lining to prevent the soda from reacting with the metal. See for yourself in Steve Spangler’s Inside The Soda Can demo.
So, what kind of food container is really plastic free? Glass? Not quite. The lids of glass jars are lined with plastic as well. Some Mason jar lids don’t seem to contain plastic, but all of the twist-off ones do. See my discussion of the differences between jar lids.
And metal twist off caps are not plastic-free either. This photo shows a twist-off wine cap. Wineries have been switching to these lately as an alternative to cork. However, these caps are lined with PVDC, a possible hormone-disruptor, which is yet another reason to stick to natural cork stoppers, especially since producers are taking new measures to make sure natural corks do not develop mold.
Confession: I do indulge in the occassional pint of Straus’s local, organic ice cream, and I do use glass jars with those plasticized lids.
I’m not listing these things to scare you or make you think you have to avoid everything. But I think it’s a good idea for us to be mindful of all the plastic we use every day and to try and minimize our consumption as much as we can. I always think it’s better to be educated than blissfully ignorant.
Every item on this page is either recyclable or compostable where I live in Oakland, CA. The question to think about is what happens to all that plastic? As we know, it doesn’t biodegrade. It’s all still out there somewhere, even if the metal has been made into new cans, the paper has been pulped into new paper or broken down into new soil. The plastic’s still there in our environment. I don’t know the ramifications of this fact. But I do think it’s important to keep in mind.