Monday, November 9, 2009

Be careful with plastics

I have a love-hate relationship with plastic. It has simplified our lives in many ways but we’d all be better off with less of it in our lives. Avoiding plastics altogether is practically impossible (and may be not necessary) though there are some kinds of plastics that you really should get out of your life.

Plastics are graded by type using a number system established by the plastics industry. The numbers that you see inside the recycling triangle represent what poly-this-or-that the particular plastic is made of (ex. polyethylene, polyvinyl, polypropylene). These numbers make it easier for recycling facilities to sort them.

Plastics with the numbers one, two and five are the plastics that you can recycle in the blue bins. Pop bottles are made of number one plastic, a grade that is one of the easiest to recycle. Health Canada is taking a closer look at this grade though since it hit the market without a full safety assessment. Number two plastic is a little heavier (milk jugs). My go-to book “Ecoholic” rates it as “Not a bad plastic, compared to the others.” Likewise number five plastic isn’t considered too bad. You’ll find this number on yogurt containers.

There are two plastics that you want to rid your life of. One is PVC, or vinyl (graded as number three). It is toxic when manufactured, off-gasses throughout its life, and is everywhere, from vinyl shower curtains to some brands of plastic wrap and some children’s toys. If ever there was an evil plastic this is it. PVC products often have softeners added to make them more pliable or clingy. This kind of plastic has that distinctive “new toy” smell caused by phthalates, which are potential hormone disruptors and thought to be carcinogenic. PVC has also been found to increase breast cancer risk.

The other plastic to avoid (for food and drink) is number seven. This is the plastic that contains the chemical bisphenol A, the hormone disruptor that the federal government has banned from baby bottles. Unfortunately it is also in the plastic that lines most packaged food cans.

Since plastics aren’t stamped with safe use guidelines here are a few tips:
• When a plastic is labeled microwave safe it doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful to your health. It only means that it shouldn’t melt when heated. To be safe don’t heat food in plastic containers, no matter what number is stamped on it. Chemical leaching is intensified when the plastic is heated.
• Avoid plastic wrap if possible. If you just can’t give it up, at least don’t use it in the microwave. Instead, use a lid or failing that a dish towel.
• Any plastics that you use for food should have the numbers one, two or five on them (inside the recycling symbol). These are the food-safe numbers. Items marked with these numbers are also recyclable. Don’t put food or drink in any containers marked with the number seven.
• Rid your house of soft plastic bath toys and vinyl shower curtains.

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