Smarter Living: Shopping Wise

plastic

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Want to know which bottles contain bisphenol A or whether you can reuse your PET water bottle? Read on to find the answers to our readers' most commonly asked questions.

If a plastic item doesn't have a recycling number on the bottom, how do I know what kind of plastic it is, or if it is safe?

The best way to find out is to call the manufacturer. The resin identification code isn't required by federal law and is absent from some pieces of plastic--especially those that aren't easily recyclable, like dishes, toys or bottle caps. It's a voluntary system that was started in 1988 to help recycling centers identify and sort plastics. Some states require companies to put resin codes on bottles because they are so often recycled, but to find out about the safety of a different type of product, you may have to go straight to the source.

Which numbers are assigned to plastic containers that contain bisphenol A (BPA)?

The only kind of plastic food-storage containers that contain BPA are those made with polycarbonate, which is indicated by a #7 in the recycling triangle on the bottom. But not all #7 plastic is polycarbonate. For example, Nalgene's latest BPA-free bottles are made of copolyester plastic that contains no bisphenol A, but they still fall into the category of #7 plastics. If you are unsure, call the manufacturer.

Does "BPA free" mean that it's safe?

Maybe. After last year's media reports about polycarbonate's leaching potentially toxic BPA into our liquids, many manufacturers, including Nalgene, stopped making water bottles from this material. But what is being used now is another type of #7 plastic called copolyester, produced under the trade name Tritan by the Eastman Chemical Co. The ingredients of Tritan have not been publicized, so there's no way to know for sure if it's safe. Read more here about what's in our water bottles.

What kind of plastic are Brita pitchers made from? Are they safe?

According to a Brita representative, the company's pitchers are made of two types of plastic. The clear bottom part that houses the water is made of styrene acrylonitrile, and the top reservoir and filter canister are made of polypropylene. The pitchers contain no polycarbonate and therefore will not leach BPA into your water. Brita has had its pitchers independently tested by the National Sanitation Foundation to ensure that they don't leach styrene, a probable human carcinogen. The FDA has also tested these resins and found them to be leach free.

Is it safe to reuse food storage bags made of #4 plastic?

It's safe to wash them with soap and warm water and reuse them until they start to get cloudy, which indicates deterioration. These plastics aren't known to contain any hazardous chemicals, but deteriorated plastic bags may transmit substances with unknown side effects into your food. Cloudy #4 bags also start to absorb odors and other flavors.

Why is it a bad idea to reuse #1 plastic water bottles?

The main reason has to do with bacterial contamination. The PET plastic used in #1 bottles is porous, so it absorbs flavors and bacteria that you can't get rid of. There is also a concern that the heavy metal antimony can leach out of #1 bottles after they've been used for a long time (usually more than six months). This can trigger diarrhea and upset stomachs.

Stainless steel Klean Kanteens are made in China. Could they possibly contain lead?

There's no need to worry about stainless steel made in China. Lead contamination isn't a concern with stainless steel, regardless of where it's made, because stainless steel contains steel, chromium and nickel only--no lead. Moreover, Klean Kanteen tests shipments of its bottles every three months to make sure they're free of nickel (which may trigger allergic reactions), chromium (high levels of which can cause kidney or liver damage) and manganese (linked to nervous-system problems). Manganese isn't usually found in the kind of stainless steel Klean Kanteen uses, but it is used in other types, so the company's tests for it are mainly precautionary. If you are still concerned, call the bottle maker, which is American, for more information.

Plastic bags are everywhere. What can we do with the ones that aren't easy to recycle?

The best solution is to avoid plastic bags unless absolutely necessary, because of the amount of waste they represent and the difficulty of recycling many types. These #2 and #4 plastics are virtually ubiquitous at the grocery store and elsewhere, and there's not always much you can do with them. If you use them to tote your groceries, try to reuse them the next time you shop. Some cities, like San Francisco, have banned plastic grocery bags altogether; others, like Seattle, have instituted a plastic bag fee, though the plastics industry is attempting to overturn it. Some grocery stores, including Whole Foods Market, have banned plastic grocery bags as well, and others will take back bags for recycling. Call your grocery store to find out what it will recycle; this may be your best bet.

last revised 11/1/2011

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