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Plastics in the Kitchen

Plastics have become a huge part of our daily routines. They’re everywhere we look—where we work, live, and eat. But their widespread use doesn’t mean they’re all safe.

When we say something is plastic, we’re really talking about it being one of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic solids. This includes nylon, PVC, polystyrene, and polycarbonate. The dangers involved with using plastics in the kitchen can be traced from the way they’re manufactured. Plastics are most commonly made from crude oil and natural gas, and often modified with chemical additives to ensure color, texture, resistance, and flexibility. Many of these toxic chemical additives mimic substances in our body, making them even more dangerous. These toxins leach from plastic over time, but the process is sped up by heating, microwaving, repeat washings with harsh detergents, scratching and cracking, and prolonged contact with fatty or oily foods.

One of the most alarming of these toxins is Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is found in some hard plastic products, and has been linked to neural and behavioral problems in infants. BPA is also shown to mimic estrogen, increase insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, and the risk of heart disease. Although BPA has been phased out of use in baby bottles, it’s still prevalent in reusable water bottles, so avoid those marked with a seven for the recycling code—unless it specifically states that it’s BPA free. Aluminum bottles and cans are often lined with BPA, as well. So going with a stainless steel water bottle is your best option.

Paying close attention to recycling codes and being informed about the type of plastics you use, especially in the kitchen, is a great first step to protecting yourself from the dangers of plastic. These recycling codes—found on the bottom of plastic bottles or containers—can tell you a lot. Besides codes with a seven, avoid PVC (recycling code three) and polystyrene (recycling code six). Recycling codes one, two, and four are generally safe, but have a limited shelf life. And recycling code five, polypropylene, is considered the safest plastic for human use.

Alternatives to plastic containers and bottles are readily available. Microwave-safe and heat resistant glass containers—like Pyrex—and ceramics are good substitutes.1 Though they aren’t widely available, natural, biodegradable plastics, which are made from things like sugarcane fiber and corn, are being used commercially, and may soon become easier to find for personal food storage use.2

It’s understandable that changing out all of your containers at once might not be feasible. If you plan on still using plastic containers in the foreseeable future, try not to wash with harsh detergents, and keep them away from high heat—that means hand washing and not using them in the microwave.