Thursday, November 19, 2009

Soapbox Sermon on Plastic Water Bottles

I promised my soapbox sermon on bottled water, so here goes. Bottled water is a ridiculous waste of money. Water is free. Can you imagine if someone told you back when you were a kid that some day people would pay $1.50 for a small plastic bottle of water? It would be like saying you have to pay to breathe the air. You’d think they were nuts, yet we spend over 100 billion dollars a year on bottled water. 100 billion. How much could be done with that money? The Water Project estimates that the cost of just one case of bottled water could supply a person in Kenya with clean, safe drinking water for the next five years!

Nevermind the cost – how about the benefit? There are no regulations specifying that bottled water has to be anything beyond decent tap water. I’ve heard all about the special springs where this water and that water come from, but I’m certain that for many of these companies, that special spring is a hose in the factory where the water is bottled. Someone’s making lots of money because we’ve never learned the lesson of the Emporer’s new clothes.

This is an easy one, folks. Instead of spending your money on bottled water, buy some really nice stainless steel or plastic water bottles and refill them. You’ll be helping the environment and your pocketbook. This is a no brainer. Stop buying water! If you’re concerned about taste, spend $30 bucks and get a water filter pitcher or attachment for your sink. I had a Britta Water Pitcher when I lived in an apartment and that water tasted great.

Back when I bought in to the whole bottled water deal, I justified it by re-using those bottles. Now, come to find out this isn’t safe! Even worse are the hard plastic bottles we used for formula – and heated in the microwave! Two of my children were breast fed, but the third had a milk-protein allergy and had to be fed soy formula. There’s no way to undo the damage that was done. If only we’d known then what we know now. And now we know that many plastics aren’t safe – heed this knowledge!

So much information has been thrown at us about what is safe and what isn’t when it comes to plastic. And some of us aren’t taking it seriously enough (ahem, I’m directing this comment at a certain someone who almost microwaved a disposable plastic sandwich container just the other night. Thank God he was saved by his hysterical, over-reacting wife!). So here’s the basics on each of the plastics by number (the number is found on the bottom of nearly all plastic products these days, normally inside a triangular recycling symbol).

1 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) Used to make soft drink, water, sports drink, ketchup, and salad dressing bottles, and peanut butter, pickle, jelly and jam jars.GOOD: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones.

2 High density polyethylene (HDPE)Milk, water, and juice bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners, and grocery, trash, and retail bags.GOOD: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones.

3 Polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC) Most cling-wrapped meats, cheeses, and other foods sold in delicatessens and groceries are wrapped in PVC.BAD: To soften into its flexible form, manufacturers add “plasticizers” during production. Traces of these chemicals can leach out of PVC when in contact with foods. According to the National Institutes of Health, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), commonly found in PVC, is a suspected human carcinogen.

4 Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)Some bread and frozen food bags and squeezable bottles.OK: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones, but not as widely recycled as #1 or #2.

5 Polypropylene (PP)Some ketchup bottles and yogurt and margarine tubs.OK: Hazardous during production, but not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones. Not as widely recycled as #1 and #2.

6 Polystyrene (PS)Foam insulation and also for hard applications (e.g. cups, some toys)BAD: Benzene (material used in production) is a known human carcinogen. Butadiene and styrene (the basic building block of the plastic) are suspected carcinogens. Energy intensive and poor recycling.

7 Other (usually polycarbonate)Baby bottles, microwave ovenware, eating utensils, plastic coating for metal cansBAD: Made with biphenyl-A, a chemical invented in the 1930s in search for synthetic estrogens. A hormone disruptor. Simulates the action of estrogen when tested in human breast cancer studies. Can leach into food as product ages.

Adapted from Green Remodeling, by David Johnston and Kim Master (New Society Publishers, 2004).

While the number 1 (PET) bottles may be safe, they are not intended for re-use. Disregarding the temperature change dangers, the structure of the water bottle makes it nearly impossible to thoroughly clean and poses a risk for bacteria.

The hard plastic bottles favored by so many outdoor enthusiasts and baby bottle manufacturers for their durability have also been deemed dangerous, particularly when exposed to boiling water. When heated or exposed to hot water, the polycarbonates that contain bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic hormone that mimics estrogen, can leach traces of BPA in to the liquid they contain.

If you go by the numbers, avoid 3, 6, & 7. These types are not safe for storing food and beverages. 1, 2, 4 & 5 appear to be relatively safe at this time, but that is completely relative – remember those baby bottles we used that were deemed “safe” at the time. Me, I just avoid plastic whenever possible. We don’t eat off of plastic plates or use plastic cups or dishes of any kind. I have a strange dish-fetish that has always believed food and drinks served in plastic don’t taste as good. It just doesn’t seem worth the risk. Plastics can get scratched and cracked and harbor all kinds of germs. And heating plastic to the temperatures necessary to kill those germs breaks down the plastic. Next thing you know you’re ingesting plastic. Even if it’s the ‘safe’ plastic, that can’t be good.

My rule of thumb is only put room temperature things in plastic containers and don’t ever heat in those containers. There are plenty of glass containers that are inexpensive, dish-washer safe and will last years longer than any plastic, no matter what the number. Any plastic lids or containers are always washed by hand and never put in the dishwasher where the heat can not only morph them in to new funky shapes, but can break them down and expose harmful chemicals to the foods they touch.

I’m slowly trying to convert our family to stainless steel water bottles. It’s a process because these beauties are pricey and ugly. I have to weigh the “drink more water” belief with the “heaven forbid it’s in plastic” hang-up. We’ll get there. Probably about the time scientists decide there’s some danger lurking in stainless steel water bottles. Maya Angelou once said, “You do the best you can with what you know at the time.” That’s all I can do. That’s all any of us can do.

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