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Ditching Disposable Dishes for Good

By on July 25th, 2012 Categories: Uncategorized

Summer, for me, means picnics on the beach, barbecues poolside, lunch on a hike, and late dinners on my back porch. Anything to get outside and enjoy the warmth and fresh air. The only downside — besides sometimes the mosquitoes — is that this often means giving up metal silverware, ceramic plates, and real glasses for their disposable substitutes: plastic utensils and cups, as well as paper plates and napkins.

I’ve always thought this was a small price to pay for convenience. Who wants to carry home a basket of dirty dishes after a picnic? Using disposable dishes also means safety — glass is a no-no near swimming pools. Still, all those tossable plates and cups fill up trashcans and landfills. They also might be bringing chemicals into our bodies. Both plastic and paper products are highly processed, and it’s not clear if using them is safe or a health risk.

On the Breastcancer.org Exposure to Chemicals in Plastic page, we talk about safety concerns when using plastic. In particular, some plastics contain chemicals that can get into the food or drinks that touch them. Plastic cutlery, foam cups, and take-out containers are often made with polystyrene and other petroleum-based plastics, which can leach the chemical styrene. Styrene is a hormone disruptor, which means that it can mimic or block hormones in the body and interfere with your hormonal balance. Plastic cups and plates may contain bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, two more hormone disruptors.

I’ve always considered paper products — particularly recycled ones — a better option. But I think it’s time to reconsider. Research now shows that BPA and phthalates also are often in products such as paper towels. I’ve also learned that products made from recycled paper fibers are more likely to have BPA than products made from virgin paper. Most paper products — even ones not specifically made from recycled paper — contain at least some recycled fibers. And when paper is heated — like in the microwave — or wet or oily, BPA can leach into food much faster.

Then there’s the issue of what exactly is in the paper. Products that appear to be all paper can have petroleum-based coatings, inks, dyes, and other additives. (Paper plates and cups are coated so they don’t get wet and fall apart with food and drinks.) Paper can actually be 20% to 40% coatings, chemicals, and fillers. These can include titanium dioxide and talcum, both of which may increase cancer risk. There are also plastic fillers called microspheres, which may contain hormone-disrupting phthalates. The inks used on paper may contain heavy metals, such as lead, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause eye and lung irritation, headaches, dizziness, and cancer.

The recycling process may actually add more chemicals to paper. When paper is recycled, solvents with chlorine and other cleaning agents are sometimes used to remove the ink. This bleaching process can release cancer-causing dioxin, furan, and other chlorinated gases unless a totally chlorine-free or processed chlorine-free process is used. It’s hard to know how much of the U.S. market is using these safer processes.

I had always considered paper plates and napkins, particularly recycled ones, totally safe. So the possibility that they could pose a health risk is honestly shocking and unsettling. Luckily, there are better choices than others when it comes to paper and plastic products. Some brands advertise that they’re petroleum-free (such as Dixie brand plates) or BPA- and phthalate-free (such as Preserve plastic plates, cups, and cutlery). Other products labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” may be made from plants such as sugarcane, wheat straw, bamboo, corn, or willow. These products may be more expensive than conventional disposables and harder to find, but they’re worth seeking out if you want to minimize your exposure to chemicals.

Most of the time, though, I’ve found paper and plastic plates and utensils are more a habit than a necessity. So I’ve decided to take a fresh approach to outdoor meals and entertaining this summer. I’m trying to break the disposable habit — here’s what I’m doing:

  • Packing reusable food glass or metal containers. By using a padded lunch bag, the glass can get bumped around without breaking. I had to buy a new thermos and mini cooler for meals on the go, but it was a small investment that will last me for years. I also have a set of metal plates and bowls from my college camping days. Plus, I bought a tiffin stainless steel plate set in India—which can also be bought online. Of course glass is better than metal for anything that needs to be heated up in the microwave. Another lightweight option that’s disposable but can also be washed and reused are the bamboo plates. Look for ones that are certified organic and haven’t been produced with any bleaches or dyes, such as those from Bambu.
  • Taking metal silverware in a reuseable bag. I picked up a bag of assorted forks, knives, and spoons at my local thrift shop — easy to find at low cost in your town too. You can get a fork/spoon/knife combo set at your local camping or army navy store — it’s fun to have and a good conversational piece (they usually have an interesting design).
  • Carrying my own coffee cup and water bottle. Lots of customers at my local coffee shop have their order filled into a reusable mug with a lid. I have a stable of stainless steel lined coffee containers which are in and out of the dishwasher, car, office, meetings, etc. I have a glass water bottle that fits inside a protective, insulating neoprene sleeve (my favorite is from Life Factory). (Neoprene is a synthetic rubber fabric.) Steel water bottles — I like Kleen Kanteen — are also a good choice. I avoid plastic.
  • Replacing paper napkins with cloth. This is a change that I’m looking forward to, since paper napkins are so flimsy and cloth napkins can be so colorful. A French custom holds that everyone has their own personalized napkin, which is stored between meals and reused until washing is really needed. It does add something special to meals in and outside the house and is kinder to the planet. And, while I hate doing laundry, it’s no biggie to add a few to the regular wash. Your local resale shop will often have a whole basket of assorted all-cotton cloth napkins for 10-25 cents each. Personally, I like using a variety of unmatched napkins, but if you can also get matching sets online or in your dollar store.
  • Reducing or eliminating my paper towel use. I’ve always been stingy with my paper towels, only using them for nasty spills or things that stain like beet juice or curry spills. But, it’s a lot harder to stop my kids from grabbing a few sections just to dry their hands (what???). Once or twice a week I just throw the used dishtowels and sponges into the laundry.
  • Not buying disposables for outdoor dinners and parties. Why not treat my guests to china and silverware? For the extra bit of festivity that they bring to the event, I can certainly handle the extra clean-up. Plus, I accept clean-up help from family and friends. And, if something breaks, I no longer care.
  • For big events, like a neighborhood block party, the cheap metal plates are gaining popularity and people can bring their own cups.

Add up these steps and you can make a real difference. Pretty quickly, you’ll make back the upfront cost of buying portable plates, cups, containers, and silverware. Then you’ll save money over time by not buying disposables. And while it’s nearly impossible to cut out all disposable paper and plastic products from our daily lives, it’s not too hard to cut back substantially. Have you already tried to make some of these changes? What was the hardest thing to do? What was most reasonable? Do you have other ideas you’d like to share?

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.


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