Healthier Options of Plastics in Food Packaging

Plastics are widely used to store and package foods and beverages. Plastic is convenient, lightweight, unbreakable and relatively inexpensive. However, there are both environmental and health risks from the widespread use of plastics. 

Environmental problems: Most plastics are made from petroleum, a non-renewable and mostlyimported resource. Plastic packaging also creates unnecessary waste. Although plastic is lightweight, it is bulky, so it takes up a large volume of landfill space. 

Health risks: Use of plastics in cooking and food storage can carry health risks, especially when hormone-disrupting chemicals from some plastics leach into foods and beverages. 

Plastic manufacturing and incineration creates air and water pollution and exposes workers to toxic chemicals.

1 PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate ethylene, used for soft drink, juice, water, detergent, cleaner and peanut butter containers. 

2 HDPE: High density polyethylene, used in opaque plastic milk and water jugs, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles and some plastic bags. 

3 PVC or V: Polyvinyl chloride, used for cling wrap, some plastic squeeze bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles. PVC needs additives and stabilizers to make it useable. For example, lead is often added for strength, while plasticizers are added for flexibility. 

Problem: DEHA (di(2-ethylhexyl)adipate) which can leach from PVC plastic cling wrap when heated, is linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation and body weight. It is also a possible human carcinogen, affecting the liver. 

4 LDPE: Low density polyethylene, used in grocery store bags, most plastic wraps and some bottles. 

5 PP: Polypropylene, used in most Rubbermaid, deli soup, syrup and yogurt containers, straws and other clouded plastic containers, including baby bottles. 

6 PS: Polystyrene, used in Styrofoam food trays, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, carry-out containers and opaque plastic cutlery. 

Problem: Styrene can leach from polystyrene plastic. Styrene is toxic to the brain and nervous system, among workers with longer-term exposures, but also has been found to adversely affect red blood cells, liver, kidneys and stomach in animal studies. 

7 Other: Usually polycarbonate, used in most plastic baby bottles, 5-gallon water bottles, “sport” water bottles, metal food can liners, clear plastic “sippy” cups and some clear plastic cutlery. New bio-based plastics may also be labeled #7. 

Problem: Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that mimics the action of the human hormone estrogen, can leach from polycarbonate plastic. 

With your food, use 4, 5. 1 and 2. All the rest aren’t good for you.

Use alternatives to plastic packaging whenever possible and especially don’t let food touch plastic in the microwave. 

Adapted from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Smart Plastic. More resources and links at


[From WS November/December 2008]

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