A few months ago, a friend of mine was reading Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. A "treeless" book -- made from plastic resins that feel like paper -- it questions the material quality of popular consumer products and calls for creative solutions in manufacturing.
As my friend detailed shocking facts regarding the inevitable decomposition of various materials and their by-products, my eye slowly fell to the Nalgene bottle in my hand. Was this handy vessel leaching toxic substances into my body?
Nalgene's Web site would have me believe not. But a subsequent investigation yielded a rather different, less cheery answer: probably.
All plastics are made from petrochemicals. My Lexan polycarbonate (#7) Nalgene bottle apparently sports the possibility of, if not a propensity for, leaching biphenyl-A (BPA), a hormone disrupter developed in the 1930s as a synthetic estrogen, into my water as the bottle ages. Polycarbonate plastics also are very popular for use in baby bottles.
I called McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), and spoke to senior environmental chemist Howie Fendley to find out if the plastic debate's merit really comes out in the wash.
"I haven't seen enough specific data to make an informed call as to whether the #7 Nalgenes are leaching BPA," says Fendley, "but I'd personally err on the side of caution. I think this is a case where they need to be proved innocent instead of guilty."
So, would I have to drink from a Mason jar or stainless steel mug? Those don't clip fashionably to my backpack.
Alas, no. Fendley confirms that Nalgene also makes a #2 high density polyethylene (HDPE) container identical in shape and size to the #7 bottle. And #2 plastics, like #4 low density polyethylene (LDPE) and #5 polypropylene (PP), are not known to leach any chemicals purported to cause cancer or hormone disruption. Apparently, #4 and #5 get a bad rap only because they aren't widely recyclable.
"I recommend the #2 bottle just to be safe," says Fendley.
What about the widely available #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET)? It's fine, but not ideal for reuse, as over time it may leach diethylhydroxylamine (DEHA), a carcinogenic substance.
The worst of the worst in plastics is #3, polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It doesn't show up in the food storage world as much, which is a good thing. PVC creates dioxin, a toxic carcinogen that settles in fatty tissues. Dioxin not only disrupts hormonal systems, but also wreaks havoc on the body's reproductive and immune systems.
"With PVC, the data is pretty evident," says Fendley. "It shouldn't be in contact with food, especially foods with high fat content -- it creates leaching. Without being a fearmonger, I would generally like to see more products properly evaluated before we deem them safe for the public.
"At my house, I don't use any plastics around heat and I use aluminum foil to cover food," he adds, "because I don't know what exactly goes into the plastic wraps."
Fendley and the MBDC share the goals of applying Cradle to Cradle principles and optimizing the chemistry of not just the base plastic resins, but the additives as well, in hopes of creating healthier products.
My goal is to leave you with a helpful rhyme by which to remind yourself of plastic safety: 2, 4 and 5 -- stay alive; all others -- await freakish mutation, brothers.
-- Matthew Schniper