Given that more than a third of the food that is produced for us to eat — approximately 1.3 billion tons — is wasted every year, finding ways to help more of that food get used is a worthy goal. On a small scale, one step we can take is storing food properly. But is it plastic or glass food storage containers that are best, both for freshness and for the environment? Let’s take a look.
Contender #1: Plastic Containers
Plastic containers are undoubtedly convenient — they’re lightweight, easily portable and won’t break if dropped. But plastic is a major environmental issue. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. generated almost 14 million tons of plastic containers and plastic packaging in 2010 alone. An astounding amount of this plastic either can’t be recycled in most municipal recycling programs or just isn’t recycled. The EPA also reports that in 2012, only about 14 percent of those plastic containers and plastic packaging were recycled.
Another big problem with plastic containers is the health risks that have been noted when plastics are heated. Two types of plasticizers, which are substances added to plastic to help stabilize and shape it, are of concern to human health: bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates. These substances are believed to be “endocrine disrupters,” which means they mimic human hormones and can cause chronic health risks. These can leach into the food or beverage from the plastic when it’s heated. There is also evidence that some acidic foods can cause leaching without being heated.
Contender #2: Glass Containers
We know that glass can be safely used for hot liquids and hot foods. Potentially harmful chemicals aren’t leaching into our meals when heated in a glass food storage container — or anytime, for that matter.
This alone compels me to gravitate toward the use of glass containers for my food storage needs, but there’s more:
- Glass is cleaner than plastic. The nonporous surface of glass doesn’t absorb food and germs (and smells).
- Glass can be safely washed at high temperatures in your dishwasher.
- You can use and reuse your glass containers again and again, which ends up saving you money.
- According to the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI), “Glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity — something few food and beverage packaging options can claim.”
- With glass containers, you don’t need to wait for your food to fully cool before putting your leftovers in them.
- Glass lets you see what leftovers are contained inside, unlike ceramic or stainless steel containers.
- Since you can see inside a glass container, you are able to safely check food as it reheats without removing the lids.
For me, the concern with the health risks of plastics is enough that I err on the side of caution and avoid using plastic containers. If you do decide to go the plastic container route, use them for cold food storage or dry food goods only. You should also get to know your plastics. Look on the bottom of your container to find the resin identification code, the triangle with a number in it, ranging from 1 to 7. This code lets you know what kind of plastic the container is made from. Generally, the safest choices for food use are numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5. Number 3 is vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), number 6 is polystyrene and number 7 can be a number of different plastics. Also, some plastic containers with the numbers 3 and 7 may contain BPA.
Whenever possible, I recommend choosing glass food storage containers. While they’re slightly less convenient, they can be used for hot or cold food without worry and they’re ideal for home food storage.
Now that you’ve got your containers sorted out, check out 3 great tips for sustainable food storage.
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