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Decoding the Mystery of Safer vs Toxic Plastic

Where exactly do we draw the line on safer vs toxic plastic?

The biggest problem is a set of harmful chemicals called endocrine disrupting compounds (EDC).  EDC’s are synthetic chemicals that mimic or block hormones and disrupt the body’s normal functions. This disruption can happen through altering normal hormone levels, stopping or stimulating the production of hormones, or changing the way hormones travel through the body, thus affecting the functions that these hormones control.

EDC’s are found in ingredients used in everyday plastics, personal care products, flame retardants, insecticides and more. In recent studies, health effects linked to low-dose exposure to EDC’s included reduced fertility, male and female reproductive tract abnormalities, miscarriages, menstrual problems, early puberty, brain and behavior problems, impaired immune function, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

Children are at higher risk because these chemicals can effectively interrupt various stages of development.  Children also eat, breath and metabolize more than adults due to their rapid rate of growth, causing them to be even more susceptible.

How to Choose the Safest Plastics

Current regulation does not require that manufacturers label their products with materials used or recycling codes.  If you do find recycling code labels they can be used to help as a general guide, but keep in mind that they are not definitive.

Additionally, silicone, glass, wood, and natural rubber are safer alternative choices that are not included in recycling categories. Learn more about silicone here.

#1 (PET or PETE) – Don't Reuse

Polyethylene Terephthalate is commonly found in single use plastic products like cooking oil, peanut butter and bottled water (EEK – don't even bother with wasteful bottled water, here's why!). We recommend avoiding all single use food and beverage products when possible. If you do end up with one, do not reuse it because it'll begin to break down when exposed to heat and harsh detergents in the dishwasher.

We do find that it's sometimes necessary for storing skin care products that are made with potent essential oils, but we don't recommend reusing those jars either.

#2 (HDPE), #4 (LDPE) and #5 (PP) – Safest, Can Be Reused

These plastics have never needed endocrine disrupting chemicals like BPA, BPS, phthalates or lead to function properly (whether for flexibility or rigidity purposes). They have a long track record of safety, so we feel comfortable recommending them.

They can be safely placed in dishwashers on the top rack, but should never be microwaved. Learn more about the how dishwashers and microwaves differ in the way they heat plastic here.

How to Avoid The Most Toxic Plastics

#3 PVC (Vinyl)

PVC is considered the most toxic plastic on the planet because it's well-known for lead (and other heavy metals), phthalates (for flexibility), dioxin and off-gassing load of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). These chemicals are well-established carcinogens and endocrine disruptors that wreak havoc on growing children, causing developmental damage, as well as damage to the liver, central nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems.

PVC (#3 recycling code) is found in an unthinkable number of everyday products and there are very few safer alternatives that really get the job done.  This creates a nearly impossible task for concerned parents who would love to be able to make quick substitutions.

You can make a difference right away by keeping an eye out for these common sources of soft, flexible vinyl – the most problematic because of the stabilizers (like lead and other heavy metals) and plasticizers (like phthalates) required to make it more pliable.

  • Inflatable toys, pools and air mattresses
  • Teethers, baby dolls, actions figures and “rubber duckies”
  • Waterproof mattresses, mattress covers and nap mats
  • Vinyl flooring and window blinds
  • Bath toys, bath seats, shower curtains and bath mats
  • Commercial plastic cling wrap (not Saran wrap style plastic made for home use)
  • Artificial Christmas trees
  • Wall cling decorations
  • Garden hoses

See our super in-depth guide about how to avoid toxic PVC plastic here.

P.S. Don't let the term “vinyl” when used for EVA or PEVA confuse you! Learn the difference here.

#6 (Polystyrene) – Mostly Found in Disposable Products

Polystyrene plastic can leach a neurotoxin known as styrene and is commonly found in packaging pellets or “Styrofoam peanuts,” cups, plastic tableware, meat trays, to-go “clam shell” containers. Styrofoam cups, meat trays, and containers break down easily when coming in contact with hot, fatty foods.

Skip this toxic plastic by bringing your own to-go containers to the restaurant with you.

SOME #7 (Other) Plastics

The #7 recycling category serves as the catch-all for various types of plastic that don’t fit in the other classifications. Some of these plastics have endocrine disrupting chemicals like BPA (polycarbonate) and BPS (sometimes hidden in canned food linings and dollar bills), while some don’t (nylon, acrylic, ABS, SAN, EVA (PEVA), TPE, TPR, and bio-based plastics).

Research studies have made it abundantly clear that we should be avoiding BPA in polycarbonate plastic, but even BPA-free plastics are showing estrogenic activity, requiring even more caution with the #7 recycling category.

Now here's where it gets tricky: the #7 recycling category includes several co-polymers made from currently undisclosed ingredients. That's always a red flag, so we’re continuing to shy away from newer #7 plastics like Tritan because there have been some unsettling studies showing estrogenic activity. Theses studies still haven’t been followed up on by an independent third party, leaving us with a notable red flag. We’re looking forward to the day when we’ll have more concrete answers about it.

According to Mother Jones: The 200-plus samples of Tritan resins that were tested consistently leached estrogen-like chemicals after being exposed to a type of ultraviolet ray found in sunlight (UVA) and another kind that some parents use to sterilize baby bottles (UVC). In some cases, samples that hadn’t even been exposed to UV light also seeped estrogenic compounds.

Be especially careful of toxic plastic hiding in can linings and kitchen appliances.  It’s tougher to avoid #7 plastics in blenders, but we still recommend you try to stick with glass or stainless options when possible.

Learn more about how to avoid toxic #7 plastics here, and check out our comprehensive guide to safer kitchen appliances here.

Insist on Transparency from Manufacturers

Keep in mind that you are voting with every dollar you spend.  You’re telling the manufacturers of plastic products and the chemical industry what you will accept and what you won’t.  The more you support the companies who have gone the extra mile to remove toxic chemicals from their products (and even label them in every once in awhile!), the more they’ll continue doing so.

Safer Products We’ve Already Confirmed for You

We’ve done an awful lot of research over the last 10 years to locate safer plastic products that are free of BPA, PVC, phthalates, melamine, and other worrisome #7 plastics.  So take be sure to check our shopping guides first before buying food related products:


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