Which Plastic Containers Are Safe for Food Storage?


Plastic Food Containers with some frozen vegetables

There are no two ways about it. We need to store our food somehow. And, let’s be honest, plastic continues to be one of the most convenient materials for food storage.

Plastic food storage containers are super cheap, easy to use, convenient to carry, and long-lasting.

What more can a person ask for, right?

Well, unfortunately, there are a few downsides to plastic. Plastic is infamous for its content of unsafe chemicals.

Which plastic containers are safe for food storage? Plastic food containers with numbers, 2, 4, and 5 are widely considered to be safe for food storage. It is recommended to avoid storing food in plastic containers with codes 1, 3, 6, and 7. Many of these food containers contain toxic plastic chemicals that have been proven to be unsafe.

When it comes to storing food, you want to be sure that your food is going to be safe for consumption later. And not all plastic containers are created equal or even safe for that matter.

Which Plastic Containers Are Safe for Food Storage?

seven different recycle symbols
seven different recycle symbols

In 1988 a code for the different types of plastics was introduced. This is known as the Resin Identification Code (RIC). Any plastic container manufactured after 1988 should have a RIC.

This code is essential in determining the safety of your plastic container, and it is one of the first things you need to look at.

#1 PET or PETE

PET plastic items that have a #1 symbol

Any plastic made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET/PETE) is categorized as number 1.

This type of plastic is used in bottled water, soft drinks, cooking oil, juices, and more. The plastic jars intended for storing peanut butter, chocolate spread, salad dressings, and pickled food are also usually made from this type of plastic.

PET or PETE plastic is durable and transparent. It is good at keeping moisture and gases out.

Number 1 plastic containers are believed to be safe for single-use, however, they should not be reused or exposed to heat changes. Use them with caution.

Plastic number 1 is recyclable and can be used for the manufacturing of other packaging containers or textiles.

#2 HDPE

Number 2 refers to plastic containers made from high-density polyethylene.

Plastic number 2 can be used in the production of some juice, water, and milk jugs. Laundry products, detergents, shampoos, motor oil, and some toys are also made from this type of plastic.

HDPE plastic is stiff and durable; it is usually colored, and it is not transparent or see-through.

Plastic number 2 is currently considered safe for food storage, as there is no data for any health side effects associated with it.

Plastic number 2 is recyclable, and it is frequently made into other hard plastic products like plastic trash cans or pipes.

#3 PVC

PVC or polyvinyl chloride is one of the most widely used types of plastic for electrical cables, window frames, siding, floor tiles, pipes, and more.

PVC can also be found in other products like plastic plates, shower curtains, cling wrap, baby toys.

PVC is a sturdy, durable, and hard type of plastic.

PVC is not considered safe for food storage. It should not be used for cooking purposes or warming your food.

It contains a number of harmful substances that can leach into the food and liquids which are stored in it like phthalates, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium, and more.

PVC is not recyclable and, therefore, best avoided.

#4 LDPE

Low-density polyethylene is labeled with number 4.

LDPE is used for the production of a wide variety of products like grocery and frozen food bags, dry-cleaning bags, and garbage bags. LDPE can also be found in softer squeezable water, honey, ketchup, and mustard bottles.

This type of plastic is considered relatively safe for single use but not for long-term use.

LDPE is usually recyclable but not always (frequently that depends on your local recycling programs and the content that was stored in the plastic container).

#5 PP

Resin code number 5 stands for Polypropylene (PP).

PP is used for margarine tubs, yogurt bottles, ice cream containers, syrup bottles, baby bottles, straws, and refrigerator storage containers. PP can also be found in medicine bottles, diapers, funnels, ice scrapers, and other tools.

Polypropylene is a hard and flexible plastic that is usually considered microwave-safe. When subjected to heat in the microwave will not wrap like other plastics will.

However, being microwave-safe does not mean safe for your health. PP plastic containers should be used with care and not for heating or cooking food.

#6 PS

PS or polystyrene is labeled as number 6.

This is a very hard and tough plastic but also very brittle.

Plastic number 6 is used for cutlery, plates, and cups. PS is found in all styrofoam products, take-away packaging, egg cartons, plastic trays, and meat trays.

Polystyrene is not safe for food storage as it can leach harmful toxins, especially when heated. Styrene is considered a potential carcinogen by EPA and IARC. It is best to avoid this type of plastic.

PS is frequently not recyclable, so it is also not environmentally safe either.

#7 Other

Plastic products marked with resin number 7 are made from mixed or just different type of plastic that does not fall into any other category.

Different products can be made with this type of plastic-like baby bottles, ketchup, and mustard bottles, juice containers, jugs, sports bottles, cutlery, can plastic lining, medical devices, plastic food containers, and more.

Plastics with resin number 7 may or may not contain harmful toxins and chemicals like BPA and phthalates.

Plastics with number 7 should not be used for food storage, as it is hard to say what exactly they are made of. They can be from bioplastics, or even polycarbonate (which is a very toxic type of plastic).

Frequently plastics marked with number 7 are not recyclable.

Which Plastic Container Are Safe to Use for Food Storage?

plastics food containers with different types of vegetable

As you have seen from above, not all plastics are safe. Some are just plain dangerous, and for others, we just don’t know yet.

Plastics with numbers 2, 4, and 5 are widely considered safe for food storage.

Still, there are some caveats here, and I will get to that in a bit.

Which Plastic Containers Are Not Safe for Food Storage?

plastics food containers fill with liquid

Plastics 3, 6, and 7 are not safe, and therefore should not be used, or at least avoided as much as possible.

Number 1 plastics fall somewhere in the middle. They are relatively safe, but they should not be subjected to heat and also should not be used long-term.

Overall, PE and PVC have been discovered to leach out the highest amount of chemicals, and PET the lowest.

What Harmful Chemicals Are There in Plastic?

The problem with plastic boils down to the fact that it contains harmful chemicals and toxins that can end up in our food.

Phthalates

Phthalates are chemicals that are used in many different products (not just plastic containers). Phthalates are used to make plastic softer and less brittle.

Phthalates are an endocrine disruptor and have been connected to a multitude of different health conditions like developmental disorders, reproductive malformations, reduced fertility, and more.

These chemicals find themselves in our bodies, usually through food and liquids that have absorbed them.

Many, but not all, phthalates have been banned in the EU, USA, and Canada.

Below are some examples of harmful phthalates:

  • Benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP);
  • Bis(2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP);
  • Di(2-Ethylhexyl) fumarate (DEHF)
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP); and
  • Diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP).

Bisphenol

Bisphenols are a group of different chemicals. The most popular and widely used one is the Bisphenol-A (BPA).

BPA is a hormone disruptor that has been linked to different health conditions like infertility, cancer, heart disease, and more.

In 2012 in the United States, the FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. And although many manufacturers moved away from BPA, it can still be found in many different plastic food packaging and storage containers.

Many manufacturers use the different variations of this chemical as a replacement, like the BPS. However, recent studies and research is pointing out that it too can be as dangerous as the BPA.

Heavy Metals

Some plastic packaging and food containers were found to contain heavy metals.

Although the experts say that the metals do not leach into the food, they can leach into the soil if not correctly disposed of.

With that being said, some of the most toxic metals to human health like cadmium, lead, mercury, and chromium can be found in some plastics.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances

PFAS are a group of chemical substances that have been found in some plastics.

Some of these have been recognized as highly toxic and dangerous.

Other Chemicals

Other chemicals can also be found in plastic. A recent study carried out in Germany revealed that some bottled water samples contained as much as 24,520 different chemicals.

However, this does not mean that all of these chemicals are dangerous.

Some of the most dangerous plastic polymers are:

  • Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) 
  • Polyvinyl chlorides (PVC)
  • Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Polyvinyl acetate (PVAc)
  • Polyethylenes (PE)
  • Polyurethane (PUR)

What Makes Plastic Storage Containers Unsafe?

an-Empty-tupperware-containers-for-food

Unfortunately, even if you try your best to stick with the safest type of plastics, you are still not in the clear. Other things can also make your plastic food containers unsafe.

The Type of Food

Certain foods can react with the plastic, and as a result, more chemicals can be released by the plastic.

Do not, or at least avoid as much as possible, storing highly acidic, highly alkaline, greasy, and fatty foods.

Temperature Swings

Researchers have discovered that PC bottles that have been exposed to boiling water will leach out 55 times more chemicals

. Also, new and old water bottles released, on average, the same amount of chemicals.

BPA and other chemicals are released even under normal temperatures.

However, using plastic containers to heat up food or liquids (for example, in the microwave) or just to store hot foods is going to increase the rates at which chemicals are released.

Damaged Surface

If your plastic container is damaged in any way, you should not use it because there is a higher risk of ingesting plastic parts and particles.

Look for any scratches, dents, chips, cracks, peeling, microwave damage, or melted spots. All of these can potentially be dangerous, making your plastic food container unsafe.

Proper Washing

Cleaning your plastic food containers can also pose some problems.

Wash your plastic containers only with mild detergents and avoid using anything more aggressive like bleach.

Long Term Storage

Avoid storing your food long term in plastic containers. Also, if you will be using a plastic container that has not been used for a while, always make sure to clean it thoroughly first to remove any chemical build-ups.

This is not going to make matters a lot better, but the longer your food stays in a plastic container, the more chemicals will leach out in it.

Bioplastics

Bioplastics are touted as a safer alternative.

However, the data is not concrete, and it may even be considered a marketing gimmick by some.

Bioplastics are able to biodegrade to a certain extent and under limited conditions, but nonetheless, they are still plastics. And to top it off, some recent data shows that these plastics may be highly toxic.

Are There Safer Alternative to Plastic Containers?

Fortunately for us, there are a few other safer alternatives to plastic containers.

Glass Food Storage Containers

The safest and overall best type of food storage containers are the ones made from glass. Glass has a long history of being safe for food storage.

It is one of the only materials recognized as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) by the FDA.

It is safer to store food in glass instead of plastic. Glass does not leach any harmful chemicals or toxins into the food even when heated or refrigerated. Neither does it impart any odors or tastes.

Unlike plastic glass does not retain any smells or flavors from the foods or liquids that are stored in it because it is non-porous and easy to clean.

With that being said, glass compared to plastic is easier to break and a lot heavier.

Glass is also fully recyclable, and unlike plastic, it does not lose any of its qualities or properties.

Metal Food Storage Containers

Although glass takes the top spot in the safety category, metal containers are not too far behind. But how safe they are will depend on the type of metal.

The safest type of metal containers for food storage is high-quality, food-grade stainless steel.

The food-grade stainless steel is type 304 or 18/8 and 18/10. This type of stainless steel is one of the most commonly used materials in cookware and kitchens today.

Stainless steel is non-porous and will not retain or alter the smell and flavor of the food you store in it. It does not require a lot of maintenance, and it is easy to clean.

Unlike glass and plastic, stainless steel containers are very durable and tough.

Other types of lower-grade food containers can react with more acidic foods and, as a result, leach harmful toxins and metals into the food. This also applies to aluminum, which has been shown to react with acidic food.

Ceramic Food Containers

Ceramic food containers are awesome, but underappreciated, an alternative to plastic ones.

Ceramic is a lot heavier compared to plastic, but it can be used in the fridge, freezer, microwave, and even in the oven.

These food containers are usually more expensive but have superb heat-retaining capabilities and are easy to clean.

Resources I used:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resin_identification_code
  • https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/polyvinyl-chloride-pvc
  • https://www.nontoxicrevolution.org/blog/7-types-of-plastic
  • https://food.ndtv.com/food-drinks/is-it-safe-to-store-your-fruits-and-veggies-in-metal-containers-1764526
  • http://www.gpi.org/learn-about-glass/what-glass
  • https://www.skolnik.com/blog/what-makes-food-grade-stainless-steel-safe/
  • http://www.babygreenthumb.com/p-122-safe-plastic-numbers-guide.aspx
  • https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/23/phthalates-everyday-products-toxics-guide
  • https://extension.usu.edu/archive/which-plastics-are-safe-for-food-storage
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisphenol
  • https://www.madesafe.org/avoid-toxic-chemicals-plastics/
  • https://phys.org/news/2013-09-endocrine-disrupting-chemical-bottled.html
  • https://chemicalsinourlife.echa.europa.eu/chemicals-in-plastic-products
  • https://phys.org/news/2015-08-heavy-metals-plastics-long-term-environmental.html
  • https://chemtrust.org/hazardous-chemicals-plastic-list/
  • https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080130092108.htm
  • https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/22/toxic-chemicals-everyday-items-us-pesticides-bpa
  • https://undark.org/2019/07/23/bioplastics-biodegradable-plastics-better-for-environment/
  • https://www.consumerreports.org/toxic-chemicals-substances/most-plastic-products-contain-potentially-toxic-chemicals/
  • https://www.livestrong.com/article/158674-which-plastic-containers-can-i-safely-use/
  • https://www.blastic.eu/knowledge-bank/impacts/toxicity-plastics/

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