Plastic food containers: not so great. Even toxic. And yet, how many of us have a ton of them stashed away in our kitchens? I still do, actually, high above the ceramic bowls and plates. A reminder of the way I used to live.
(Disclosure: This post contains product links. If you purchase anything via the links in this post, I will receive a small commission to support my plastic-free work.)
What’s Wrong with Using Plastic Containers?
When I first started eliminating plastic from my life, I didn’t worry about the plastic I already had in my kitchen. I continued to use plastic food containers for eating and storage because I didn’t want to waste what I already had. But after learning so much about the chemicals that can leach from plastics, I eventually decided that eating from any kind of plastic was not worth the health risks.
Why? Because in addition to the chemicals we do know about and try to avoid: BPA, phthalates, antimony, and recently antibacterials, there are a whole host of additives in plastics we don’t know about at all. Plastics manufacturers are not required to disclose any of the chemicals they add to plastics, so we as consumers have no way of knowing if which ones, if any, are safe.
(BTW, my book Plastic-Free has a whole section on the chemicals in plastics and how they can affect our bodies.)
Now, I’m not advocating running out to replace every speck of plastic you have in your kitchen right away. And I’m certainly not in favor of tossing it all in the landfill. Here are a few ideas.
If you want to keep using your current plastic containers for a while, here are some tips to reduce the likelihood of chemical leaching.
Stop heating plastic. Period. Do not put it in the microwave. Do not put it in the oven. Do not put it in the dishwasher, even on the top rack. Heat causes plastics to leach more readily. If you must eat food from plastic containers, please hand wash them with warm (not hot) water. Do not serve hot food in them ever. And, if you’re still buying bottled beverages (you’re not, right?), never store them in the hot trunk of a car.
No fatty foods. Plastic containers are not good for fatty foods either because plastic is lipophyllic, which means that it attracts and binds with fats. Have you noticed how hard it is to clean grease from plastic containers? That’s why. So, when considering what foods to store in plastic, think about cold sandwiches, dried fruits, crackers, nuts, etc. Those kinds of foods might be the least likely to encourage leaching.
Keep away from sunlight. In addition to heat, light also causes plastics to break down, in a process called photodegradation. Keep them in the dark. Far back, in the darkest reaches of your cupboard or pantry, where you’ll forget you even have them and use something else instead.
Okay, so you’re ready to start replacing some of the plastic that you already have. Here are some tips:
Kids’ stuff first. Children’s developing bodies are much more susceptible to harm from leaching chemicals than adults’ are. As Jennifer Taggart writes in her book, Smart Mama’s Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child’s Toxic Chemical Exposure,
Children are not ‘little adults.’ [….] Children consume more food on a body-weight basis, and have a faster metabolism. They have a larger skin-surface area in relation to body weight, and have a different body composition. They experience rapid growth not seen in later life. Many of their systems are immature when born, including their immune system, and may be more susceptible to harm.
So replacing children’s plastic bottles, cups, food containers, toys, and anything else they might put in their mouths is probably more important than replacing your own at first. If you’re worried about breaking glass or ceramics, think about stainless steel or wood. Life Without Plastic carries children’s plastic-free tableware and food storage containers made from both of these materials. Other great plastic-free containers for kids are LunchBots and PlanetBox. You can also find glass or stainless steel baby bottles with silicone nipples. Check out the information about Pura Stainless bottles at the end of this post.
Drink from Stainless Steel. Get a stainless steel water bottle or travel mug and never buy a drink in disposable plastic again. Did you know that even paper coffee cups are actually lined with plastic? If you put cream in your hot coffee, you’ve got two plastic no-no’s in one: Heat and Fat.
Glass jars rock. To get started with plastic-free food storage right away, just stop putting your glass jars in the recycling bin and keep them to reuse. In our home, we store almost all of our leftovers and food from bulk bins (rice, beans, grains, nuts, baking soda, etc.) in reused glass spaghetti sauce jars. And yes, you can store glass jars in the freezer. Carefully. Don’t fill the jar all the way up to the top. And don’t subject jars to extremes of temperature, for instance, freezer to microwave. Food in jars needs to thaw a bit at room temperature (or in a bath of warm water) before heating.
Sometimes buying new is okay. I invested in some Anchor glass refrigerator containers, which I love. They have glass lids and can go in freezer, refrigerator, microwave, and oven. (Just not immediately from freezer to oven, please.) And they are eminently stackable. The not-so-great thing is that the lids are not airtight, so they don’t work for transporting food (unless you are very careful) or for long-term storage. For those needs, I have Life Without Plastic’s airtight stainless steel containers. They can’t go in the microwave or oven, but they’re great for food storage.
A Giant Leap
Want to go all the way? How about committing to never buying/eating food in plastic again. Okay, depending on your situation and the resources available to you, that might not be possible. Here are a few tips to get you as far along the path as possible.
Bulk bin love. Check your local area and find out what stores sell foods in bulk bins where you can bring your own bags and containers. If the store is able to weigh your containers before you fill them, then bring your own jars or cloth drawstring bags (for example Eco Bags), and you won’t have to transfer your purchases when you get home. If not, reuse your disposable bags and transfer food immediately. Keep your bags to take with you the next time.
Rethink what you eat. My diet changed drastically when I gave up plastic. For the better! Instead of living on frozen convenience foods, energy bars, chips and fast food, I started eating whole foods like fruits, veggies, grains, and beans. Not only did I cut out the chemicals that could leach from the plastic, I also got rid of the chemicals added to the foods in the first place.
Make it yourself. Sometimes, when I can’t get a particular prepared food without plastic, I find a way to make it from scratch. No, I don’t bake my own bread, although I’m sure some of you are awesome bakers. But I did find a way to make my own chocolate syrup and mayonnaise and mustard.
Bring your own containers for leftovers. Those stainless steel containers come in very handy after a restaurant meal. You don’t have to bring your food home in plastic when you have your own container with you.
So, what should we do with all our old plastic containers? Instead of adding to the landfill, how about using them for storing non-food items? Desk supplies. Craft supplies. Hardware. The possibilities are endless. Like I said, I think it’s important to reuse the plastic we already have. Just not for food.
Back in 2010, when this post was first published, Pura Stainless sent me a baby bottle to give away to a lucky reader of this post, which I did. To be specific, it was the Pura Stainless 11oz infant bottle with medium-flow silicone nipple and silicone travel cover. The bottle is made from food service grade (#304) stainless steel. Even the ring that holds the nipple is made from stainless rather than plastic (unlike Klean Kanteen’s.) And according to the package, the paint on the outside of the bottles is “non-toxic and free of lead, phthalates, PVC, and BPA.”
Pura’s baby bottles come in a variety of sizes. And in addition to company’s own silicone nipples, the bottles will fit many other brands of nipples and sip spouts. However, I believe that right now, the only sip spouts available for these bottles are plastic.
What to do? To sip or not to sip? If I had a kid, I wouldn’t want a plastic spout stuck in his/her mouth. I don’t remember drinking from a sippy cup when I was a kid, and I’ve found numerous anti-sippy cup articles online tonight. But like I said, I am not a mom and have no experience in that department, which is why I need your comments!