The Final (Probably) Word on Plastics from Umbra

Readers remain atwitter over kitchen plastics, about which eco-advice guru Umbra Fisk admits to having been less than perfectly clear in the past. To find out which plastics are OK, which aren't, and why avoiding them all might be the simplest answer, pop the top off of Ask Umbra, on the Grist Magazine website.

Dear Umbra,

Since you only mention #1 plastics as being safe, I'm assuming I should throw out the #4 I just purchased?

Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dearest Sylvia,

I confused and frightened and annoyed many of you on the issues of food and plastic. I'm sorry -- #4 is OK, as are #2 and #5. Honestly, I can hardly keep the numbers straight myself. I thought about a rhyme ("four and two are fine for you"), but I can't come up with a good one, and a bad one will just leave us with the familiar cold/fever problem. Feed a cold and starve a fever? Starve a cold and feed a fever?


As I mentioned earlier, avoiding kitchen plastics as much as possible is my current solution to the confusion. In some cases, however, this might be uselessly broad advice. So, to make up for my uselessness, I'd like to point you to excellent information from The Green Guide. Joy of joys, this article includes not only a good description of the drawbacks of plastic, but an actual shopping guide. (You'll have to subscribe to access it, but if you're all atwitter over this issue, it might just be worth it.)

The environment/health connection we've all been pondering lately is well illustrated by the kitchen plastics question. The waterfall of responses to my original bottle commentary almost uniformly centered on the personal health risks of using plastic. That's definitely an environmental concern in the general sense of environment (environment = surroundings). In the other sense of environment (environment = our natural world), at least one thing is clear: Vinyl is out, and that includes #3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastics. Completely. Totally. And I do have a little rhyme for this one: "No vinyl. That's final." (Or, if you prefer, "No PVC for me.")

My fellow altruism-attempting eco-heads, we must enforce a personal shopping ban on all PVC and vinyl products. Polyvinyl chloride creates dioxins during manufacture, during the useful lifetime of the product, and upon disposal. Dioxin is a long-lived known carcinogen that settles in our fatty tissues and the fatty tissues of other animals. It also disrupts our hormonal systems and may cause reproductive- and immune-system damage in our bodies and the bodies of our fellow living beings. Dioxins cause particular harm to people living near PVC plants and waste incinerators, and, as I've said twice already, hurt cute animals.

So, to be a bit more useful and decisive than usual, I will firmly state: Don't bring any #3 plastic, vinyl, or PVC into your life. Forget about the other numbers if it's too much to remember, and just focus on #3. "No three for me."


Yours is to wonder why, hers is to answer (or try). Please send Umbra any nagging question pertaining to the environment.

The claims made in this column may not reflect the views of Grist Magazine or ENN. Neither the magazine nor the author guarantees that any advice contained in this column is wise or safe. Please use this column at your own risk.

Umbra Fisk is Grist Research Associate II, Hardcover and Periodicals Unit, floors 2B-4B.

Source: Grist Magazine