Is Any Plastic Safe?

Think your BPA-free plastic is safe? You deserve to know the truth.


Plastic has gotten a lot of attention lately.  Concerns about plastic in children’s toys, kitchenware and water bottles have become mainstream.  We know that we’re supposed to avoid certain things, but we don’t know why, or how choosing an alternative will somehow be safer.  Or, if any of our options are safe at all.

Is Any Plastic Safe?

Here’s the skinny: chances are, if you’re concerned about plastic, you know to avoid BPA.  BPA, along with several other chemicals in plastic, is an endocrine / hormone disruptor, and is found in 90% of Americans urine, according to the NY Times. You read that right; it disrupts your hormones.  And ladies, I don’t think I need to tell you how delicate that balance is!  As the NY Times reported; even before the latest research showing multigenerational effects (yes, that means that you’re inadvertently poisoning your children and grandkids), studies had linked BPA to breast cancer and diabetes, as well as to hyperactivity, aggression and depression in children.

You’ve also probably heard that to use plastics safely you need to keep them out of the dishwasher and microwave, even if they’re labeled as safe for both.   So you think, “Easy.  I’ll just cut out BPA, hand wash, microwave in other containers, and I’ll be fine, right?”  Wrong.

 We are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and unfortunately, so are our products.  And BPA isn’t the only toxin in plastic.

Here’s the problem: it turns out that many products that are “BPA-free” still contain substances that behave in the same ways that make BPA dangerous in the first place.  In fact, some of these non-BPA replacements are actually more harmful than BPA itself.  Even more disturbing, there’s no way to know whether or not these substitute ingredients are present because companies are not required to label them.  Nor are they required to test their safety to begin with. We are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and unfortunately, so are our products.  This essentially makes consumers unknowing guinea pigs.

So you think, “I’ll just do my research, right?”  Well, maybe.  The thing is, the plastics industry has gone out of its way to inject confusing and often contradictory information about plastic’s safety into the market.  For any study that proves something is unsafe, you are likely to find another study proving that it is.

Is Any Plastic Safe?

At first I thought this ample amount of research was a good sign.  Nothing stamps the seal of approval faster for me than hard, scientific evidence.  Unfortunately, it seems that these plastic-endorsing studies have been severely skewed.  For example, one industry-backed study sought to prove BPA’s safety by testing it on a particular strain of rat, a rat that is already a known exception to the rule and is not affected by BPA.

In addition to conducting skewed experiments of their own, the plastics industry has tried to discredit legitimate studies.  If this desperate sabotage on the part of the chemical and plastics companies isn’t reason enough to make you think twice, perhaps this statistic is.  According to an exposé by Mother Jones, 90% of of all the government-funded studies surrounding BPA’s safety concluded that BPA is harmful.  In contrast, none of the industry-funded studies found it to be harmful.

BPA is the obvious example, but this type of conduct applies across the board.  It should also be noted that the plastic industry has enlisted the help of The Weinberg Group.  This is the same group that created Big Tobacco’s White Coat Project, which recruited doctors to speak out against the mounting evidence that secondhand smoke was harmful.  We all know how that story played out…

Is Any Plastic Safe?

Ninety percent of studies conducted by government-funded scientists concluded that BPA is harmful.  In contrast, none of the industry-funded studies found it to be harmful.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that we don’t know what to do about plastic.  Is any plastic safe?  The reality is this: at this point, not really.  What about hope for the future?  Well, even if one brand does come out with a safe product, it’ll be too tough to know what studies are real and which are fake.  I do know that there is an easy way to at least lessen if not totally eliminate the plastic in your life, and that is by switching to glass.  But if you’re looking to cut out plastic entirely, you have a tall order ahead of you.

Some worthwhile adjustments are easy to make, such as switching to a stainless steel water bottle.  But what about those bottles of sunscreen in my cabinet?  And food that comes in a plastic container?  What about peanut butter?  What about all my many skin creams???  As eco-friendly and health-conscientious as I would like to be, I don’t see myself making my own products anytime soon for the sake of making sure it never gets stored in plastic.  The sheer volume of what’s required to keep my body safe is giving me heart palpitations as I write this.  Within three feet of where I’m sitting, I see my Ecco Bella foundation, my Desert Essence lip gloss, and some massage oil, all bottled in plastic.  I’m going to slowly replace all the products that I can with ones that come in glass containers, because the alternative (getting sick) is too scary.  But sometimes it seems like as a society we’ve already opened Pandora’s box, and there’s no going back.

Plastic is such a common staple in our day-to-day lives, it’s hard to imagine a future without it.  But with the mountains of concrete evidence that it’s dangerous, it’s hard to imagine a future with it, too.  Therefore, it seems wise to consider not only how plastic is affecting us, but how stress about plastic affects us.  Knowledge is power, but it’s a pretty deceptive form of power if it takes over our sanity.

After writing this article, I will be switching to glass storage containers, but I know that I won’t be able to avoid plastic entirely.  I will, however, try to consistently choose the lesser of the available evils.  If you must use plastic, try to avoid PVC (those marked #3 for recycling), polystyrene (#6), anything marked #7, and PET, as these are the types that leach the most chemicals.  Try to avoid plastic whenever you can, really.  Just don’t let the stress of avoiding plastic become more of a problem than the plastic itself.

6 Tips for Cutting Back on Plastic

Totally avoiding plastic is almost impossible, but it’s possible to reduce your exposure to concerning chemicals found in these products.

  1. Eat fresh food. The more processed your food is, the more it may have come into contact with materials that could potentially leach concerning chemicals.
  2. Don’t buy into “bioplastic” hype. Green or biodegradable plastic sounds great, but so far it doesn’t live up to the hype. Most data indicate that these products aren’t as biodegradable as their marketing would imply. Plus, this latest study showed that these products (such as biobased, biodegradable PLA) can have high rates of toxicity.
  3. Vote with your wallet. Try to buy products that aren’t packaged in plastic in the first place. We need to make manufacturers aware that there is a problem and that we, as consumers, aren’t happy with the status-quo. That’s the most effective way to push for change. Hilary Rowland made a Pinterest board of plastic-free products to get you started (she’s managed to successfully eliminate 90% of plastic from her life.)
  4. Don’t store your food in plastic. Food containers can contain chemicals that leach into food. This is especially true for foods that are greasy or fatty, and foods that are highly acidic or alkaline. Opt for inert stainless steel, glass, or ceramic containers.
  5. Don’t heat up plastic. Heating up plastics can increase the rate through which chemicals leach out, so try to avoid putting them in the microwave or dishwasher. Even leaving plastic containers out in a hot car could increase the release of concerning chemicals.
  6. Don’t use plastics that we know are problematic. But don’t assume that all other products are inherently safe,either. Recycling codes “3,” “6,” and “7” indicate the presence of phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols, respectively—so you may want to avoid using containers that have those numbers in the recycling symbol on the bottom. “3” and “7” also indicate PVC and PUR plastics, respectively, which studies have found to contained the most toxicity. But products made from other types of plastic contain toxic chemicals, too, which means that reducing your plastic use overall is probably the best way to avoid exposure.
Avatar of Jennifer Spillane

Raised in California and North Carolina, Jen is both an actress and a writer. She loves writing fiction, especially for young adults, and exercising her non-fiction muscles through Urbanette and her chocolate blog: Chocofiles. Jen also loves adventures, yoga, live music and spontaneous dance parties.

Reader Discussion: 122 Comments

  1. Avatar of Margot

    Great article- there are so many things consumers need to be aware of due to lack of regulations.

  2. Avatar of Oxi Harger

    Oxi Harger

    Stop using microwaveable plastic containers as it’s still made of plastic and is exposed to heat.

  3. Avatar of Maddi Lemmon

    Maddi Lemmon

    I never thought that even those BPA free containers are still harmful! Good information.

  4. Avatar of Koda Hansen

    Sadly, there still a lot of places and countries that are still using plastic bags and containers for their foods. They’re not thinking about their health and the environment.

    • Avatar of Louisa Newman

      Louisa Newman

      They replace it with biodegradable bags in some countries. It’s even compostable so you can recycle at home! 😀

  5. Avatar of Ofelia Ruley

    Ofelia Ruley

    That’s why all the containers that can be found in my kitchen are either glass or stainless. I’m careful with my health.

  6. Avatar of Doreen Morales

    Doreen Morales

    Rip up paper bags for sandwiches instead of using plastic baggies. No leaching

  7. Avatar of Jodi Thil

    Jodi Thil

    I would Avoid using or asking for plastic bags, they are a nuisance for environment and health

  8. Avatar of Hachi Komatsu

    Hachi Komatsu

    Stop buying and using anything plastic & eat organic seems to be the best solution. do a healthy living!

  9. Avatar of Amanda Wilson

    Plastic and nylon are dangerous to your health .. Avoid using them especially in freezers and microwaves …!

  10. Avatar of Joss Butler

    Joss Butler

    My Dad and I had disposed of most of the plastics containers in our kitchen. And we’ve been avoiding the use of any plastic together with our food.

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