Are plastic bottles and food containers safe?

by Deena on December 8, 2010

Over the past couple of years there have been several news reports or articles regarding baby bottles and water bottles containing a chemical called BPA (bisphenol A).  A recent conversation with one of my son’s nurses sparked a renewed interest in plastic and the safest way to use it where my family is concerned.  She mentioned that she never refills plastic water bottles.  When I asked why, she said she couldn’t remember the details but that you shouldn’t refill them.   Thus began my research into plastic since I always refill plastic water bottles because I figured it was at least a little more environmentally responsible.

So let me share what I’ve learned…

There is a recycling symbol generally on disposable and single use plastic containers that can help you to determine whether a plastic item is safe or not.  The symbol determines what type of plastic is being used in the associated product.

There are seven different types of plastic available.  Here’s your guide to what the numbers mean, whether they’re safe, and how easily recyclable they are:

#1: This plastic is PETE (polyethylene terephtalate ethylene), also known as PET.  Most disposable soft drink and water bottles are made of #1 plastic.  This plastic is considered generally safe. However, it is known to have a permeable surface that allows bacteria and flavor to accumulate, so it is best to not reuse these bottles as makeshift containers unless you thoroughly wash them daily.  Of course the down side of washing them daily is that using a strong detergent can break down the plastic and increase chemical leaching.

#2: This plastic is HDPE (high density polyethylene).  Most plastic milk containers, shampoo bottles, detergent bottles, juice bottles, are made of this type of plastic.  This plastic is considered safe and has low risk of chemical leaching.

#3: This is PVC (polyvinyl chloride). It is used for food cling wraps, plastic squeeze bottles, and cooking oil, toys, and other products.  It’s also the material that my parents’ deck is made out of.   You should minimize use of #3 plastic around food as much as possible.  So no eating off the deck, kids!

#4: This is LDPE (low density polyethylene).  It is used to make grocery bags, some plastic food wraps, and ziploc bags. This plastic is considered safe.

#5: This is PP (polypropylene). Rubbermaid containers, yogurt cups and similar wide-necked containers are often made from it, straws and some baby bottles.  This plastic generally has a clouded look to it.   This plastic is also considered safe.

#6: This is PS (polystyrene).  It’s used in styrofoam, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls.  There are reports suggesting that this type of plastic leaches potentially toxic chemicals, particularly when heated.

#7: This number is a catch-all for everything else. It is plastics that were developed after 1987 and don’t fit into categories 1-6.  Unless it is labeled #7-PC (which is an unsafe polycarbonate or PLA (Polylactic acid which is compostable – a safer bio-based plastic made from corn) – you will generally have to call the manufacturer to ask them what type of plastic is in it.

To summarize, please take a look at the chart below which I found on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s website.

Plastics #1, #2, #4 and #5 are generally considered safe for use with foods.  Plastic #1 should not be re-used due to the risk of growing bacteria. The largest risk with plastic seems to be centered around microwaving or heating them with food and the leaching of chemicals.  So microwave-safe plastic doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing, it just means it won’t melt if you zap it.

Personally, I plan to avoid microwaving plastic entirely and just use glass containers.  Now I just need to find some easy to store glass containers to replace all those plastic ones I grew up using.  Angela owns the Snapware Glasslock Set, so I’ll definitely be checking that one out.

For more information you can review any of these sites from which I consolidated most of my information:

http://www.nrdc.org/health/
http://www.healthobservatory.org/
http://www.simplesteps.org

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Nicole December 8, 2010 at 9:25 am

Thanks for the valuable information!

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