Skip to main content

Want more great tips? Sign up for our free updates!

Plastics are ubiquitous, cheap and convenient, but come with a hidden cost: they leach chemicals that contaminate our food and drink, and they create enduring pollution. The best thing to do is minimize your use of plastic, especially in the kitchen. Where you can’t avoid plastics, get to know how to choose and use safer ones with these essential tips.

1. Use alternatives to plastic for food and drink storage.

The safest container materials include glass (ex. Pyrex), stainless steel, and lead-free ceramic. These are better choices than even the safer plastics, which contain chemical additives that may not have been well evaluated for safety.

2. Buy food without plastic packaging when possible, and choose fresh, unprocessed foods.

Shop the farmers market, produce aisle, and bulk bins for whole foods with less packaging. Processed foods have more opportunity for contamination with chemicals from plastics.

3. Take special care with plastics in the kitchen.

Heat accelerates leaching, so avoid microwaving all plastic (even if labeled “microwave safe”) and cool any hot foods before storing in plastic. Fatty or acidic foods more readily absorb migrating chemicals, so avoid storing them in plastic. Hand-wash plastics to slow wear and tear, and when they are worn and scratched, recycle.

4. When you do use plastics, look for these resin codes which are considered safer: #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE, and #5 PP.

  • Examples of #2 HDPE (high density polyethylene) include: bottled milk, water and juice, yogurt cups, and some plastic bags.
  • Examples of #4 LDPE (low density polyethylene):  bags for bread, frozen foods and fresh produce, PVC-free consumer cling wraps, re-sealable zipper bags and some bottles.
  • Examples of #5 PP (polypropylene): food storage containers, deli soup, yogurt containers, straws and other clouded plastic containers, including baby bottles.

5. Go PVC-free.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride, #3), commonly called vinyl, is a soft, flexible plastic found in building materials and consumer products like shower curtains, toys, and packaging. PVC typically contains hazardous additives such as phthalates, and releases dangerous chemicals throughout its lifespan. You can find safer alternatives to PVC in virtually all cases.

6. Steer clear of polycarbonate (PC #7) to avoid bisphenol-A (BPA).

Polycarbonate is a clear hard plastic used in some reusable water bottles, baby bottles, commercial water jugs, and kitchen appliances like automatic coffee makers and food processors. Instead, choose glass or unlined stainless steel for drink containers.  Look for appliances that don’t have plastic in food contact areas, such as French press coffee makers, stainless steel stick blenders or glass jar blenders.

7. Avoid products made from polystyrene (PS #6).

Found in styrofoam food trays, disposable cups and bowls, carry-out containers, and opaque plastic cutlery, polystyrene can leach styrene, a neurotoxin and possible carcinogen.

8. Choose plastic-free toys when possible, especially for young children who frequently put them in their mouths.

Look for toys made of unpainted wood, cloth dolls, plush toys, and games or puzzles made of paper. Offer a frozen washcloth instead of a plastic teether. Don’t use plastic electronics like cell phones or remote controls as toys, because they may contain harmful additives such as flame retardants.

9. Reduce before recycle: kick the single-use, disposable plastic habits like bottled water, plastic shopping bags, and excess packaging.

Most plastic ends up in the garbage, polluting on land, and accumulating in oceans where it is especially harmful to sea life. Though we think of plastic as easily recyclable, the overall plastics recycling rate in the U.S. was only 8 percent in 2010. Take steps to reduce your plastic consumption with ideas from the Plastic-free Living Guide, get creative with reusing materials, and recycle properly. Not all plastics can be recycled in curbside programs so get the facts on your area at Earth911.