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Packaged goods

(article, Nancy Schatz Alton)

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“I want to say one word to you. Just one word,” enthuses Mr. McGuire in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.” Benjamin Braddock, the graduate of the title, listens meekly for the big reveal:


Then as now, plastics are all-American, the easy way to convenience, comfort, and (according to Mr. McGuire) cash. Most Americans have cupboards full of plastic containers, from Tupperware and GladWare to sandwich bags and Saran Wrap. But as we learn more about the safety of using plastic to store food, we’re becoming wary of it. Should we use aluminum foil or waxed paper instead? Or glass containers? Which are best for the environment and our health?

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Food-storage options (from left) include glass snaplock jars, waxed paper, aluminum foil, and hard plastic boxes with lids."]

The packaging problem really begins in the grocery store. Is that organic, grass-fed beef truly packaged in food-safe wrap? (Probably.) Should I buy 12 single-use containers of yogurt or the gargantuan tub? (The big tub — unless you’re not going to eat it fast enough.) Is it better to buy five pounds of flour packed in paper or scoop it from the bulk bin into a plastic bag? (Depends.)

Trying to go green when it comes to food packaging is really an exercise in shades of gray, says Chris Doyle, the operations manager at Pioneer Organics, a Seattle-based organic groceries home-delivery service. “A plastic bag \[or container\] is a challenge any way you look at it,” he says. “What has the least post-purchasing effect, making less garbage in the world and having the bag break down in a reasonable amount of time?”

Here’s a boxed set of food-storage options, including plastic, aluminum, waxed paper, and glass.

h3. One word: plastics

Earl Silas Tupper, who launched the Tupperware company in 1938, is credited with creating plastic food-storage containers for home use. Today Tupperware is just one player in the plastic-container game, with numerous manufacturers producing bins in seemingly endless configurations and sizes. These airtight containers keep food fresh, so what’s not to like?

Well, recent scientific studies have raised concerns over the chemicals used in plastic food containers and whether they leach into the foods kept inside. “Bisphenol A is a chemical that’s used in a variety of consumer products, including food containers and plastic wraps,” says Anila Jacob, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, an environmental-research nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “It mimics the acts of \[the hormone\] estrogen. This chemical — at very low levels — is associated with breast cancer, prostate cancer, infertility, ovarian diseases, and early puberty.” 

Jacob notes that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found bisphenol A in 95 percent of its 400 test participants. Bisphenol A can leach into food if the plastic begins to break down. “Two things cause the plastic to break down: heating it or intense washing,” says Vincent Cobb, the founder and president of Reusable Bags, a website that sells reusable bags and other products designed to help consumers reduce, reuse, and save.  

Bisphenol A is found in polycarbonate plastics, classified by a number 7 recycling code on the bottom of the container. Typically, these are used in Nalgene water bottles and baby bottles, but other containers are made with it too, including Tupperware Rock ‘n Serve. (In April, after the Canadian government announced that it would declare bisphenol A toxic, Nalgene announced that it would no longer use bisphenol A in its bottles.) 

In addition to bottles, the insides of canned goods are often lined with an epoxy resin containing bisphenol A. An Environmental Working Group study tested 97 types of commonly eaten canned food and found bisphenol A in more than 50 percent of the cans.

“Try to avoid \[number 7\] plastics as much as possible,” says the EWG's Jacob. “If you’re going to use plastics for storage, don’t ever microwave them.”

Paul McRandle, the deputy editor of National Geographic’s green-consumer publication the Green Guide, also recommends washing polycarbonate plastics by hand. “The more distressed it is, the more it can melt,” says McRandle.

The Environmental Working Group encourages people to decrease the amount of canned food they consume. Not only will you reduce your bisphenol-A exposure, but fresh food is better for you, Jacob says.

Most plastics used for food storage sport the recycling numbers 4 and 5. These numbers indicate the type of resin used to make the plastic. Number 4 uses a low-density polyethylene, also noted by the initials LDPE. Number 5 is made from polypropylene, noted as PP. (Plastic bags, such as sandwich baggies and ziplock freezer bags, are usually made from plastics numbered 4 or 5.) Most research has not shown any leaching of harmful chemicals from number 4 and 5 plastics, reports the Green Guide.


h1.Bottled and canned

Grist's Umbra Fisk offers her own lowdown on plastic bottles and canned goods made with bisphenol A; the online environmental magazine also has a handy list of chemical toxins. And Culinate has an earlier shopping list of water bottles by material.


LDPE is the most common plastic used in ketchup bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, as well as GladWare, Rubbermaid, and Tupperware containers. PP is often used to make bread bags, squeezable bottles, and plastic freezer bags. McRandle lauds freezer bags for helping preserve fresh food. “We don’t have a blanket loathing of plastic. It does make a greener lifestyle possible,” McRandle says.

Although the Green Guide lists containers made with LDPE and PP plastics as food-safe based on current research, some food-industry experts have rid their kitchens of plastic. “I don’t store in plastic; I store in glass. I guess the only thing plastic is the lids,” says Goldie Caughlan, the nutrition educator for the Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets.

Caughlan tries to avoid plastic containers at the store, although she realizes making homemade yogurt is out of reach for most of us. Many consumers take pride in reusing their resealable yogurt containers, and there has been no outcry from scientists about this practice. Still, Caughlan believes these containers were not intended for sanitizing and reusing. She encourages her students to recycle them or put them to uses beyond food containment, perhaps for potting seeds or storing nails.

The safety factor of plastic and cling wraps is dependent on the type of chemicals used to make the plastic. For instance, clear food wrap is sometimes made out of polyvinyl chloride, also known by the recycling code V or PVC (number 3), which is a known human carcinogen. 

The Green Guide says: “PVC's manufacture and incineration release dioxins, which are carcinogens and hormone disruptors. In contact with foods, especially hot, fatty foods, PVC can also leach chemicals such as adipates and phthalates, shown in mice to cause birth defects and damage to the liver and kidneys.” The Green Guide also notes that PVC isn’t accepted by the majority of community recycling centers.

When purchasing plastic or cling wrap, it’s important to look at the product label to make sure it doesn’t include vinyl. “There are many plastic wraps now that are made out of better alternatives, like Saran Wrap, \[which is\] made out of number 4,” says McRandle.

McRandle doesn’t worry about food packaged in clear wrap at the supermarket. If you shop at a butcher shop or deli, ask to have your food wrapped in waxed paper. 

Consumers can always rewrap food that comes in clear wraps. Reusable Bags president Cobb always repackages the cheese he buys in waxed paper; before rewrapping the cheese, he scrapes it with a knife, removing any part of the cheese that came into contact with the original wrap. 

Chemicals leaching into food is a big concern with plastics, but not the only one. In 1996, plastics manufacturing contributed 14 percent of the most toxic industrial releases into the air nationwide, according to the Berkeley Plastics Task Force. And plastics are a petroleum-based product. “There is a finite supply of petroleum,” Pioneer Organics’ Doyle says. “Are bags the best use for petroleum?”

Some plastics are recyclable, but recycling programs aren’t offered in all communities, and even when they are, some programs recycle more types of plastics than others. “Plastics in the landfills just sit there,” says the Green Guide’s McRandle. “Unless they are polyvinyl; then they leach chemicals.” 

h3. Heavy metal

Producing plastic actually takes considerably less energy than manufacturing aluminum. “Aluminum production is a highly energy intense industry. It is one of the most polluting of industries,” says PCC’s Caughlan. “There is no acceptable place where you can actually recycle any aluminum wrap. It’s not like an aluminum can.”

More products are being made out of recycled aluminum now. Caughlan has tried these products, but wouldn’t purchase them again; they tend to be flimsier and rip more easily. When she buys aluminum foil for holiday usage, mainly to keep food warm in the oven, she buys the heavy-duty product, made from virgin aluminum. “\[The recycled foil\] was a miserable product; it’s not good quality,” Caughlan says. 

h3. Waxology

Waxed paper is often touted as a green alternative to foil and plastic packaging. Some markets even carry unbleached waxed paper. 

The Green Guide_ wrote about waxed versus plastic sandwich bags in its spring 2008 issue. “We found because of the energy required to make the waxed paper, along with the fact that waxed-paper bags were much less reusable, that plastic bags won out,” McRandle says. “They are both using non-renewable resources, but between the two of them, you can get a lot more mileage out of plastic bags.”

More mileage means washing out plastic bags for reuse. Caughlan prefers parchment over waxed paper, but says wrapping sandwiches in a cloth napkin (if your child can remember to not throw it away) is an even better option. McRandle recently saw organic cloth sandwich bags at a product expo. Reusable Bags offers another option for lunchtime wrapping: Wrap-N-Mat, a reusable, washable, foldable mat with a Velcro closure made with a food-grade PEVA (polyethylene vinyl acetate) plastic lining. (People concerned about plastics line the mat with biodegradable waxed paper, suggests a customer.) 

h3. Glass

Many consumers are converting their stock of plastic containers to glass. Glass is an inert, stable material, with no possibility of leaching, notes Reusable Bags president Cobb. Glass is also microwave-safe. Many plastic products say they are microwave-safe, but this only means the products won’t melt, and is not an indication of whether chemicals will leach into your food during heating, McRandle says. 

As with plastic yogurt containers, you can buy glass containers containing one item, then wash them out and use them to store something else. Caughlan buys her sea salt and salsa in wide-mouth jars and later stores soup and salads in them. Ball jars and French jelly jars are also good for food storage. Caughlan says thrift stores are a great source of inexpensive glass containers and jars. 


h1.Going with glass

Tea, of the blog Tea and Cookies, has switched to glass for storing both leftovers and bulk items. "I’ve recently switched my food storage from plastic to glass, to get away from using disposable containers and also to sidestep the worrisome things I’ve been reading about storing — and especially reheating — your food in plastic," she writes.


Food is also more visible in glass containers. “People just don’t open things in their refrigerator,” says professional home organizer Denise Allan. If you can see what’s in a container, you’re more likely to eat it.

Pyrex glassware is readily available for food storage, but McRandle points out that Pyrex contaminates the glass recycling process, making it an unrecyclable material. The greenest benefit of plain glass is how easy it is to recycle. Still, the greatest benefit of a Pyrex glass container is the longevity of the product. “The very fact that you will have it long enough for you to pass down to your kids is a reason to purchase it,” says McRandle.

McRandle also points out that it is more energy-intensive to produce glass than it is to produce plastic. “The one advantage glass has over plastic is the reusability factor — say, if the milk company that uses glass milk containers reuses those containers,” he says.

Of course, one of the issues surrounding food containers is just how many of them we buy every year. “The problem is, we keep buying more,” McRandle says. “We get another set for some reason.”

The key, says Cobb, is to wake people up from mindless consumer daydreaming. Everyone can make a difference, he says: “Get reusable when you can, recycle the ones that you can, and reuse the containers that you get.” 

p(bio). Nancy Schatz Alton is a freelance writer and editor in Seattle, Washington. Her husband keeps recycling the glass jars she intends to use as food containers.

reference-image, l