It's hard to beat plastic for versatility. It's used to make everything from life-saving medical tubing to explosives to food storage containers. But recent health questions are raising concerns: Is plastic safe for baby bottles? Does it release chemicals into food when microwaved?

There are many kinds of plastics, but all have one thing in common: none are good for the environment. The chemical and structural properties that make plastics so versatile and durable also make them resistant to decomposition from sunlight, water, bacteria and enzymes. The legacy of human life on Earth could be plastic!

The health threats that may be posed by plastics are a growing concern. Studies of plastic baby bottles, for example, found many contained the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) and plastic softeners called phthalates. Both can leach into food and drinks and are potent hormone disruptors that may affect brain development and cause cancer.

The non-profit Environmental Working Group recommends glass or Pyrex as a better option for storing food. If you must use plastics, use those marked with a 1, 2, 4, or 5 because they don't contain BPA. The Environmental Working Group also suggests not microwaving food in plastic containers, since heat can cause additional chemical leaching.

The Environmental Working Group recommends glass or BPA-free baby bottles with clear silicone nipples. For teething babies, avoid plastic toys that could leach chemicals when chewed; try a frozen washcloth instead.

For more tips, the Environmental Working Group has a web page devoted to finding better alternatives to plastic. From their home page at, click on the "health tips" link and then on "Healthy Home Tips: The Series."

Reducing the amount of plastic we use, and recycling as much as possible, is crucial.

Many plastics are marked with a special symbol: a triangle with a number inside identifying the type of plastic. Here are the numbers and what they mean:

1. PET (PETE), polyethylene terephthalate, clear water and soda beverage bottles;

2. HDPE, high-density polyethylene, detergent bottles and milk jugs;

3. PVC, polyvinyl chloride, plastic pipes and outdoor furniture;

4. LDPE, low-density polyethylene, plastic bags and food storage containers;

5. PP, polypropylene, drinking straws and yogurt containers;

6. PS, polystyrene, or Styrofoam, "packing peanuts" and cups;

7. Other plastics that do not fit in the first six categories, like Tupperware.

Check with your local recycling program to find out what numbers they accept. Some county recycling programs don't accept number 5 plastics, for instance, but Whole Foods markets offer a bin for recycling number 5s.

You can do your part by choosing glass and aluminum containers instead of plastic, avoiding highly packaged products with plastic, and recycling as much plastic as possible.

I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation's website at or contact me at, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey's precious land and natural resources.