Q: I've heard that some plastics are better than others. How do I know the one I'm eating from isn't tainting my dinner?
A: The P word. It's a sensitive topic for most eco heads. How can we be happy that a petrochemical invention has enveloped nearly everything on the planet in a non-biodegradable sheath? (Toronto chucks 70,000 tonnes ever year!)
It's even more painful for earth lovers when it comes in - yikes! - single-use, disposable versions! But no matter how planet-conscious you are, sometimes you just can't get away from using the stuff, so it's best to size up which type is the lesser evil.
It just so happens Greenpeace has created a lovely pyramid of plastics. And the one that ranks highest in terms of hazardous characteristics is PVC, or polyvinyl chloride (marked with the number 3 or a V). It's a known human carcinogen, with a nasty propensity to leach long after it's landfilled. Though it's used mostly by the construction biz (yes, your pipes, if not lead, just might be PVC), but it's also the basis of vinyl records, old car seats, those shiny black outfits worn by the fetish crowd (sorry, gang!) and, scary but true, toys.
Extremely harmful additives like phthalates are added to make the hard plastic soft and squishy (perfect for chewing and sucking by babies and toddlers), and heavy metals like lead and cadmium are added to make harder toys for older kids. Thankfully, Health Canada removed PVC teething toys, rings and rattles from shelves in 98, but it didn't force toy makers to eliminate it from their entire product lines. The plastics people stand by its safety, but if you're looking for non-PVC options for the child in your life, check out Grassroots on Danforth and Bloor West . They will soon carry the Original Rubber Ducky ($9.99), made of natural rubber - and it squeaks. They also have organic cotton stuffed animals without the usual PVC plastic eyes and nose ($29.99). Macklem 's on Dundas carries phthalate-free teething toys (starting at $9.98). But adults need bottles, too. Here's a tip on what to watch for: if your clear plastic bottle has a seam and/or, as we said, the number 3 or a V on the bottom, its PVC. But that accounts for very few of the bottles out there. What about the rest?
Well, the hard plastics used for refillable milk and water bottles aren't much better. Polycarbonate ranks second on the pyramid hit list. That's a shocker because it's often marketed to the eco set as non-leaching, not to mention indestructable - perfect for outdoorsy types (that's you, Nalgene bottle owners). But it's made with a highly toxic chlorine gas derivative and carcinogenic solvents.
"Yes, but does it leach?" you ask. The data is conflicting. While the industry says no and even if it does leach it's not enough to hurt you, some controversial studies disagree. They suggest that even at low doses the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (found in the lining of food and beverage cans and polycarbonate bottles, including baby versions) can be dangerous. You'll have to decide on your own on this one. Just in case, Macklem's sells glass baby bottles ($3.50 small). You can also find them at second-hand stores, and Europe Bound on Front sells steel water bottles ($14.99).
Now for all those plastics that come in close contact with our food. Whatever you do, do not heat takeout containers or leftovers stored in old margarine tubs and the like in the microwave. They will leach into your grub! Same goes for most plastic bags, plastic wrap and some reusable plastic food containers. Look for microwave-safe labels, but even those aren't guaranteed to not leach when heated.
"But I never use a microwave," you say. You still have to watch out for plastics made with harmful phthalates. A couple of mainstream plastic wrap manufacturers (not that you should be making a habit of using plastic wrap anyway) like Saran are now using a new class of plasticizers/softeners not linked to health problems. Both Glad's plastic containers and plastic wrap are also free of harmful phthalates.
Scientists are working on biodegradable plastics made of flax and canola. In the meantime, number 1, 2, 4 and 5 plastics (including Ziploc and many Tupperware, Rubbermaid and Gerber containers and bottles) are much less likely to have harmful additives and leach into landfills and meals. Ones and 2s, in particular, tend to be lighter on the earth because they're the most highly recyclable resins out there.
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