Plastic & Food

Andrea Fabry

Andrea Fabry › Andrea is a former journalist, a radio host, and the mother of nine children. She is ...

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Should You Care?

In the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, friend and entrepreneur Sam Wainwright offers George a get-rich-quick job, telling him of the bright future in plastics. “It’s the biggest thing since radio and I’m lettin’ you in on the ground floor.”

Fast-forward to 1967, when Mr. McGuire advises Benjamin in the movie The Graduate. “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word,” says Mr. McGuire. “Plastics.”

The petroleum-based plastics industry has indeed skyrocketed. In 1960, 7 million tons of plastics were produced. Today more than 300 million tons are produced each year. (See this article for details.)

Consumers love the convenience of plastics, especially in regards to the packaging and storage of food. The magazine House Beautiful understood this in 1947, when they devoted a 50-page insert to “Plastics… A Way to a Better, More Carefree Life.”

But are we more carefree? Studies continue to emerge questioning the safety of plastics. Chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates (pronounced thal-lates), used in cosmetics, adhesives, epoxy can liners, water bottles, and more, defy the traditional toxicological premise that more exposure means higher risk. Research suggests that small doses may do as much harm as high doses by mimicking and disrupting hormones. (See this abstract to learn more.)

One study released this summer found that those who follow a simpler lifestyle reduce their exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The study, conducted through Mount Sinai Medical Center, focused on a group of Mennonite women. According to the study’s senior author, Dr. Shanna H. Swan:

“The Mennonite community provides us with a natural comparison group because they eat mostly fresh, unprocessed foods, farm without pesticides, apply no cosmetics, and use personal care products sparingly.”

“The findings,” according to Dr. Swan, “are remarkably robust and consistent. They underscore the degree to which the home environment determines exposure levels to many toxic or potentially toxic chemicals.”

If plastics and our health don’t mix, how do we live in a culture that depends on plastic for food storage, water bottles, baby bottles, canning, and even sales receipts?

Consider small, incremental changes.

Here are five ways to reduce your exposure to undesirable chemicals found in plastics:

Heat food in glass containers. Heat is one of the most significant ways harmful chemicals leach into your food. Even if your food has been frozen in plastic, transfer to a glass container before heating.

Pack food in parchment paper. It’s hard to pass up the convenience of disposable plastic storage bags. Thankfully there are companies such as If You Care offering a parchment paper option. These may be a bit more costly in the short run, but they offer a much safer option. If you must use plastic bags, consider lining them with parchment paper before storing your food.

Use stainless steel or glass water bottles. It takes anywhere from 400–1,000 years for a plastic water bottle to decompose. You can help the environment as well as protect your health by switching to reusable water bottles.

Avoid receipts. Many sales receipts are coated with a layer of BPA. If you don’t need the receipt, let the cashier know. If you do need it, keep it in the bag until you get home (unless the receipt is exposed to raw food). Keep your receipts in a closed container such as a paper envelope.

Think outside the box. Don’t assume the status quo is the only way to live. Begin to think differently about the way you eat and live. Consider ways to bring fresh foods with you in non-plastic containers when you’re on the go. Try your hand at food fermentation, or check out a local farmers market (don’t forget your reusable grocery bag!).

Never underestimate the value of small changes.

The following websites offer more suggestions for reducing your use of plastics:

Life with less plastic? Sounds like a wonderful life to me!

Do you have any tips for reducing our use of plastic? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit:  Andrea Fabry