“But I thought we were supposed to recycle stuff. It’s good for the planet and so on. Right? And what’s wrong with my fork?”
It’s true that recycling in general is a good thing, and the vast majority of your (plastic) forks are probably just fine.
However, we want you to know about a few potential problems with some recycling and some plastics and to show you some ways to avoid those problems before they become...problems.
Icky Chemicals Getting Where They Don’t Belong
Let’s take a quick look at a couple of fairly common chemicals that could cause problems for some people.
There’s one called bisphenol A - more commonly known as BPA - that research [ ← link “research” to breastcancer.org article] suggests may cause cancer. BPA is a synthetic estrogen (which is a hormone) that is found in many products such as rigid plastics (like forks), the linings of cans that hold food or baby formula, the shiny side of cashier receipts (it stabilizes the ink), and more.
Another type of chemical that scientists say [ ← link “scientists say” to dailymail article] you can find in utensils like cooking spoons, whisks, and spatulas is called an oligomer. Oligomers themselves aren’t a specific chemical. The word really describes the structure of any number of chemicals. You’ve heard the term polymers, right? An oligomer is a simpler, lighter polymer.
These oligomers can leach from utensils onto food when the cooking temperature rises above 70°C (158° F.).
Now, not all utensils have the problematic chemicals. Neither do all plastic forks have BPA. And in general, it takes large amounts of these icky substances to cause anything bad to happen to you.
The point we want to make here is that you should be aware of the possibility so you can take a few precautions as needed. We’re not trying to scare you into some radical behavior that you’re unaccustomed to.
As you’ll see, there are some easy and commonsense ways to preventing the ickiness from doing bad things to you and those you care about.
What You Can Do to Be Safer from Those Icky Chemicals
“Do I have to throw out all my plastic forks? And what should I do with those cash register receipts?”
No, you don’t have to get rid of all your plastic cutlery, but you might want to reconsider what you do with the receipts you’ve been recycling.
As far as the rigid plastics you use when cooking and eating, if the temperature of the food doesn’t top 158° Fahrenheit, you’re fine. Of course, most cooking does require a hotter temperature than that.
One solution is not to use plastic cooking utensils. Maybe choose wooden spoons instead. If you still want to use plastic cutlery when eating, just wait until your food has cooled down sufficiently.
There are a number of things you can do (or do differently) to avoid BPA getting where it shouldn’t go. For those cashier receipts, either don’t take them home in the first place or don’t throw them into the same recycling container with your other paper recyclables.
The real problem with this coated paper is that the BPA can get into other recycled products - napkins, toilet paper, etc. - down the line.
When shopping, look for products that openly say, “BPA free”. If the product you want doesn’t come in a BPA free version, at least try to reduce how much of that product you use over time. Remember, it usually takes a lot of a bad chemical to make a difference.
If you are looking at a plastic product that has the recycling number “7” on it, see if it also says “PLA” or has a leaf symbol. If it does, then it might have BPA in it. You might want to avoid that version of the product and look for a similar one with a better label.
In general, if you want to be safer relative to the plastics in your life, try to come into contact with fewer of them. For example, if you regularly use a water bottle, use one made of glass or steel or ceramics, instead of one constructed from plastic.
It can be as simple as that.
When you have options, choose products made from those materials or other non-plastics like bamboo, wood, silicone, and other metals (but obviously not lead).
We hope you can see that none of these safety precautions takes a huge amount of thinking or effort. We’d like to think that you can make great choices as a matter of course habitually. When you do make such wise decisions, you will feel better, your family will benefit from them, and the world as a whole will appreciate your efforts.
Doesn’t that make you feel better already? Sure, it does.