by Suzanne Duval d'Adrian
Have you ever used plastic containers to store extra food from dinner or to transport leftovers for lunch the next day? More often than not, those leftovers require some time in the microwave to be enjoyed properly. There’s increasing concern over what can happen as a result of using certain plastic containers and how it may affect our health and overall wellness.
How do they make plastic?
General plastics are made from a variety of raw materials, usually including crude oil and natural gas, though it can also be made from corn, soy and hemp. Without getting into a highly-technical description of the chemical processes, compounds in the raw materials (polymers) are broken down into monomers, which are then chemically treated so that they bond together in new and different ways. Once processed, they form a resin-like substance. The type of plastic formed is dependant on additives combined with the resin and the actual processing method.
We know the term because we’ve heard it on all the news stories, but what is it really? Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, is a chemical additive used to make the hard, clear plastic we call polycarbonate. It’s what makes some of the plastics we see and use every day as clear and tough as they are — it gives them their durability. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most dangerous parts. According to some sources, BPA is present in about 93% of the plastics on the market. It exhibits hormone-like properties, acting similar to estrogen. First approved for use in 1963 by the FDA, BPA was included in most food containers and can linings. In 1976, the Toxic Substance Control Act required all new substances introduced to the market to be tested by the EPA, but the act didn’t apply to the already in-use BPA. A number of studies conducted over the years have linked BPA to an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease and a number of other diseases and conditions. In fact, a 2013 study in the Scientific American shows a clear link between BPA and Childhood Asthma.
Even the word sounds scary. Leaching is the process by which chemicals escape into other substances, generally as a result of the breaking down of chemical bonds. What’s one way to chemically break bonds? Heat — the exact thing that comes from either the microwave or leaving a container out in the direct sunlight. Now, knowing that there’s a hormone-mimicking chemical in some of the plastics on the market, and seeing as how we’ve just identified that chemicals can come out of the plastics through heat and normal degradation over time, can BPA transfer into what we actually consume?
Yes. BPA can (and according to a large number of studies conducted, does) leach into the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. In laboratory studies, the levels released when a plastic container was heated were comparable with those scientists have found to cause neurological and developmental damage in laboratory animals. That’s why there are a lot of plastic-based products on the market now touting a status of ‘BPA-free.’
If you’re looking to cut extra chemicals out of your life — and to avoid the dreaded red stain that any tomato-based food leaves behind — nix the plasticware in favor of glass. While it may be a little more tricky to transport, you may get a better feeling when re-heating something at a high temperature or seeing leftovers in the refrigerator.
If you’ve got some plastics around and are wondering whether or not they contain BPA, look for an embossed triangle containing a number — it’s usually on the bottom. If there isn't a number on the container, visit the manufacturer’s website and look for any BPA-related statement or contact them and ask. If you are able to find it, here’s the code to knowing what’s in your hands:
The Plastic Number System
#1: PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): Easily recycled, not found to leach. Most common for plastic water bottles, juice and soft drink bottles.
#2: HDPE (High Density Polyethylene): Easily recycled, not found to leach. Usually contained in the white plastic milk jugs, plastic shopping bags, and detergent and shampoo bottles.
#3: PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride): Most commonly, soft plastics such as cling wraps, children’s toys, accessories, rain gear, building materials, detergent and spray bottles. (The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified that one of the chemicals used to make PVC, vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen.)
#4: LDPE (Low Density Polyethlyene): Recyclable at centers, not found to leach. Used in most plastic storage bags.
#5: PP (Polypropylene): Not generally found to leach. Used in reusable shopping bags, baby bottles, most yogurt and deli takeout containers, Tupperware and Rubbermaid reusable food and drink containers.
#6: PS (Polystyrene): Can leach styrene, which is a neurotoxin. Used in rigid foam cups, takeout food containers, egg containers, some plastic cutlery.
#7: Other: May contain BPA and generally found in 5-gallon water bottles, some commonly used plastics and some baby bottles. It’s often specially made and may contain many different types of plastics.
As consumers, we’ll be more aware of the products we buy. As designers, we’ll support clients who make smart decisions about their product packaging. As a whole, we’ll applaud safer containers and the companies who make changes to provide them.