What’s in That Container?

Why take a chance on BPA?

Wouldn’t it be great if people on the go carried their water in reusable containers rather than single-use plastic bottles? The practice could help make a dent in the 52 billion plastic bottles and jugs that wind up in U.S. landfills and incinerators, or alongside our roads, each year. It could reduce the consumption of fossil fuels used to make those bottles. And it could save consumers who use a bottle a day somewhere around three hundred dollars a year–a well-deserved reward for good environmental citizenship.

Safe & Healthy Water Bottles

There’s only one hitch. It turns out that not all reusable bottles are created equal. The hard, clear ones made of “polycarbonate” plastic may taint the liquid in the bottle with small amounts of a chemical that mimics estrogen (the chemical is called bisphenol-a or BPA). Polycarbonate baby bottles pose the same risk.

BPA may also be getting into the food we eat: it’s used to make the resin coating that lines some metal food cans. And many health advocates are concerned that tiny amounts of other chemicals may be leaching into food that’s stored or heated in certain types of plastic containers or plastic-lined packaging. For example, a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, thought to be a carcinogen, can leach from the greaseproof lining of takeout containers and microwave popcorn bags.

Scientists are still debating how much these chemicals may migrate from plastic bottles and containers and whether they are a threat to human health. But why take a chance? There are several safer choices mentioned below–and many of these options are not only good for your health, they’re easier on the planet.


Top Tips

At home or work

  • For drinking, use a glass or a ceramic mug. In situations where you don’t have to worry about breaking a container, stick with these timeless–and reusable–beverage containers.
  • Keep food and beverages in inert containers. These include glass, ceramic, and stainless steel. Don’t store food or liquids in polyvinyl chloride (PVC, #3) polystyrene (PS, #6), or polycarbonate (#7). Safer plastics for food and beverages are polyethylene terephthalate ethylene (PETE, #1), high density polyethylene (HDPE, #2), low density polyethylene (LDPE, #4), and polypropylene (PP, #5). Be cautious with plastics labeled #7, the catchall category for “other” plastics: the new corn-based plastics, which are considered safe for food contact, are #7, but polycarbonate plastic, which can leach BPA, is also #7.
  • Heat food in microwave-safe glass or ceramic containers. Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that plastic containers and plastic wrap labeled “microwave safe” are okay to use, many experts advise against it, noting that when plastic is heated, minute quantities of chemicals can leach from the plastic into food. If you do choose to use plastic containers in the microwave, don’t use them for fatty foods like meat or dairy products, because chemicals leach more readily into fatty foods.
  • Nix takeout containers. Never microwave food in takeout containers or packaging like margarine or salsa tubs. Styrofoam and plastic that’s not labeled “microwave safe” can melt, and paper containers often have often a greaseproof lining that can leach chemicals into the food. Instead, transfer food into microwave-safe glass or ceramic containers before heating. If possible, keep a few small glass or ceramic containers at work for reheating your lunch.
  • Pop popcorn on the stovetop. Popping corn in a pot with a bit of oil is a smidgen less convenient than throwing a bag in the microwave, but you’ll spare yourself the chemical seasoning and you’ll create a lot less waste, especially if you buy popping corn in the bulk section of the market.

When shopping, look for

  • Stainless steel bottles. If you need a water bottle that’s unbreakable and portable, stainless steel bottles are safe.
  • The right plastic for drinking water. Polycarbonate bottles are the only ones made with BPA–so steer clear of them. There are no known health issues associated with drinking water from the other types of plastic beverage containers: high-density polyethylene (#2 HDPE), low density polyethylene (#4 LDPE), or polypropylene (#5 PP).
  • Glass or ceramic food storage containers. Many stores sell inexpensive glass or ceramic containers with lids that can go directly from the fridge into the microwave or oven, so they do double-duty as both storage container and cooking vessel.
  • Fresh food. Canned food manufacturers aren’t required to indicate whether the can’s lining was made with PFOA. If you’re concerned about potential PFOA exposure, favor fresh food and food packaged in glass jars rather than in metal cans.
  • PVC-free cling wrap. Plastic wraps made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, contain a plasticizer chemical that can leach into foods. Many manufacturers of cling-wrap for home use have switched from PVC to safer low-density polyethylene (LDPE). However, PVC cling wrap is still used on some prepackaged foods. To be safe, if you buy food wrapped in cling wrap, when you get home transfer it to a glass or ceramic container, aluminum foil, wax paper, or LDPE cling wrap.

Other Considerations

  • Studies dating back to 1998 indicate minute quantities of the BPA can migrate from hard-plastic polycarbonate containers into water. In laboratory tests on animals, BPA has been found to have estrogen-like effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that humans are safe at current levels of exposure, but federal researchers at the National Toxicology Program have “some concern” about the chemical’s impact on fetuses and young children’s brain development and behavior. In April 2008, the manufacturer of the popular Nalgene polycarbonate bottles announced it would stop making them.
  • Many baby bottles are also made with plastics that contain BPA. Read our baby bottle article to learn more.

Benefits…

…to your health
The jury is still out on the safety of plastics in contact with for food and beverages. If you use the alternatives, however, you won’t have to worry about who’s right and who’s wrong.

…to your wallet
Multiply the number of times you quench your thirst from a reusable bottle by the cost of a single-use beverage. And then congratulate yourself on your brilliant money management! Also keep in mind that shelling out a little money for reusable glass storage containers can save you money because you won’t go through as many disposable wraps and bags.

…to the Earth
If you avoid single-use water bottles and other disposable plastic packing, you’ll be shrinking your personal oil consumption. (With the exception of the new bio-based plastics made from corn, all plastics are petroleum-based products.) And you’ll produce less waste.


Common Mistakes

  • Reusing throwaways. Don’t reuse single-use beverage bottles. Their narrow, crinkled necks are hard to clean, so bacteria can proliferate.
  • Believing everything you read. Millions of junk emails have circulated–purportedly from Johns Hopkins University–claiming that microwaving or freezing food in plastic containers releases dioxin, a potent carcinogen. That’s hooey. There is no dioxin in plastic.

Getting Started

  • While it’s often greener to use products as long as possible, when it comes to polycarbonate water and baby bottles, you may be better off tossing them and replacing them with BPA-free bottles. Pick up a few different sizes of microwave-safe glass or ceramic containers to replace your plastic ones. Read our Microwaves article for more tips on safe microwave cooking.
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