It’s hard to say exactly when our kitchens became repositories of plastic cooking utensils, containers, plates, platters, glasses, sippy cups and beyond. If we had to guess, likely all that kitchen plastification began to ramp up around the time Tupperware was born in the ‘50s. Within a few years the virtually indestructible plastic stuff swept glass and ceramics to the back of your mom’s and grandma’s kitchen cabinets, almost completely upending how food was served and saved for the five or six decades to follow.
Though plenty of people still cling to their plastic, these days we know it’s bad news. Over time we’ve realized that plastic-based convenience came at a high price, exposing our bodies to far too many health-bashing endocrine disruptors or EDs. What makes EDs so scary is their power to wreak havoc with your hormones, making them do things they shouldn’t, like stimulating cancer growth and triggering immunity, fertility, metabolic, developmental and cognitive problems. They interfere with the endocrine system’s ability to keep your body’s hormones balanced.
While there are numerous sources of endocrine disruptors crossing our path every day – think BPA (bisphenol-A), parabens, phthalate, PBDE’s (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and pesticides – one of the easiest ways to evict them from your body is kick them out of your kitchen. So, how to send them packing? Start by clearing out as much toxic chemical clutter as possible, including the plastic, and turn up the volume on making your kitchen one of the greenest oases in your home. Here’s how to start giving your kitchen a (green) makeover that really matters:
Green up your kitchen act.
Step one, purge that plastic. Yes, I know, it may seem challenging but it needs to be shown the door – and promise you won’t bring in new plastic to replace the old. Don’t store food in it, don’t reheat food in it – those days are over. Purge all at once or step by step if need be, but keep your eye on the prize: a kitchen that supports your health and, while you’re at it, the earth’s too. To green up your kitchen act, start with these 9 smart and simple swaps:
- For food storage in or out of the fridge, transition to glass or ceramic containers, ideally with glass, metal or ceramic lids, no silicone handles or trims please
- You can also store food in stainless steel containers with airtight matching lids, as the stainless won’t absorb bacteria or leach chemicals
- If you’ve bought glass containers with plastic lids, top whatever food items you’re storing in them with a layer of unbleached parchment paper to act as a barrier and minimize leaching from the plastic lid
- For carrying your lunch to work, fermenting, or dry goods storage, invest in several different sizes of old-school Mason jars, which are inexpensive and look great on pantry shelves
- For stove top and oven cooking, stainless steel, cast iron and high-quality enamel-coated cast iron are great, versatile options
- For roasting veggies, spread ‘em out on a stainless-steel pan lined with unbleached parchment paper to help ease clean-up
- Glass or ceramic plates, dishes and glasses are non-leaching must-haves for serving, as foods heated up in or served in plastic bowls and plates can leach toxins into food
- For food processing or blending smoothies, soups, purees, etc., tame toxins by switching to a blender with a heavy-duty glass or stainless-steel pitcher
- For steaming, straining and draining, opt for stainless wire strainers and colanders
- Switch to old-school stainless-steel ice-cube trays, which, by the way, will freeze your cubes much faster than those made with plastic or silicone
When recycling is a challenge, repurpose.
OK, so maybe you over-bought on the plastic storage boxes and Tupperware, and now you’re kind of stuck with the stuff. Much of it isn’t recyclable and you’re committed to keeping those toxic troublemakers far from your food. So, now what to do with it all? Rather than sending it to the landfill, think repurposing. Use the containers to organize small items in the garage like nuts and bolts, or as baskets to hold keys, eyeglasses, small change, odds ‘n ends, whatever is lying round the house and needs a proper home.
And here’s an off-beat recycling tip to consider: Some municipalities recycle certain types of plastics while others do not. If recycling options in your town are limited, take yours elsewhere (within reason, of course). One of my NYC-based patients saves up a portion of his recyclables and drops them off at his sister’s house a few times a year for her to include with her recycling as her town has a more extensive recycling program.
Give your food prep and cooking utensils a ruthless edit.
If you cook frequently (and I hope you do!), chances are, you may have a few more kitchen utensils than you need. Your kitchen drawers may feature an assortment of plastic and/or nylon cooking utensils, plastic strainers and cutting boards with cuts and dings from years of service. I have three words for you: throw them out!
Even if they don’t look like they’re in bad shape, chances are excellent that they’ve degraded and are flaking microscopic pieces of plastic and EDs into your food while you chop, stir, sauté and whisk. Make a full purge of this stuff a priority and start fresh with sturdy stainless steel utensils which many pro chefs prefer, and cutting boards made from solid blocks of hard woods, like Forest Stewardship Certified teak. Tough and sustainable bamboo is a passable alternative but bamboo cutting boards are usually held together with adhesives that may contain the toxin formaldehyde –a big drawback to consider.
Consider a hard pass on cooking with silicone.
But, you might ask, what about silicone bakeware? According to the FDA, it’s not dangerous per se, but frankly, I have my doubts. I think erring on the side of caution is a better choice for your body — there’s just too much we don’t know. While the FDA considers it safe for use up to temperatures of about 425°F, what happens after that point is anyone’s guess. Between the possibility of leaching and off-gassing toxins when temps get high, and the possible inclusion of sub-standard materials or fillers being used in the manufacturing process, my concerns about silicone’s safety start to add up. The stuff’s not recyclable or biodegradable either, so more points off for that. Would I cook with the stuff? Nope, and you might want to steer clear of silicone till we know a lot more about the long-term implications of using it.
Un-cling from the wrap.
Step away from the ‘cling wrap,’ clingfilm, cellophane, plastic wrap, Saran Wrap, call it what you will, particularly if you use a microwave regularly. Clinging to your wrapped produce in the fridge that then gets heated up in the ‘wave is, unfortunately, a great way to drip and melt endocrine disruptors into your food. Not very appetizing, eh? Instead, invest in a $30 vented glass microwave plate cover to contain splatters and retain moisture while heating food more quickly and evenly without toxic drips.
In the fridge, plastic-wrapped produce is also a no-no, as the often wrapped-extra-tight plastic can introduce toxins like endocrine- disrupting phthalates into your food and lock them in. While your best bet is to avoid any fruit or veg sealed in plastic wrap – farmers’ markets rarely wrap – if you do make a plastic-wrapped purchase, as soon as you get home, remove all plastic cling wraps and packaging and decant items into glass or ceramic containers for storage, to keep endocrine disruptor leaching to a minimum.
Phase out plastic storage bags.
When it comes to convenient food storage, gallon-sized Ziploc bags are the 800-pound plastic gorilla, and they’re not going away any time soon, unless we all make a serious effort to getting rid of them. If you already have a bunch of them living in your pantry, commit to not buying new ones in the future and use the ones you have multiple times. Wash, dry, repeat. When the bags come to the end of their food service lifespan, give them a second life: throw them in your suitcases and use them to keep clothes organized; to help prevent liquids from spilling; to protect your clothes from your traveling shoes; to carry wet bathing suits back home, you name it.
…And teach your kids a lesson.
Instead of buying new plastic bags, which only adds to the tons of plastic floating in our oceans and poisoning sea creatures, filling up landfills and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, rethink your storage, snack and sandwich bags. Instead of sending the kids off in the morning with a lunchbox full of little plastic baggies, wrap ‘em up in beeswax bags, beeswax wraps or plant-based food wraps. They’re washable, reusable and biodegradable – and we’re all for that. You can also go old school and wrap hand-held lunches in washable cloth napkins or simple unbleached paper sandwich (and snack) bags. Giving plastic a hard pass at lunchtime (and beyond) also gives the kids a subtle reminder to treat the earth a little more kindly every day.
Tame paper towel use.
During the pandemic, as you may recall, supply chain issues and consumer hoarding sometimes made paper towels hard to come by, and when you could score a supply, you likely paid top dollar. For better or worse, the paper towel panic of 2020 did teach us a lesson that our grandparents knew well: dishtowels can do the same jobs just as well, are infinitely less expensive, and don’t require a trip to the market. With an estimated almost 700 million tons of paper towels winding up in the trash every day, why not ditch paper towels altogether? If you can’t quite face giving them up completely just yet (baby steps, people, baby steps), then buy a third of your usual haul to get used to the idea. Lean heavily on dishcloths, and use the paper towels judiciously, rinsing them out between uses instead of throwing them out, air drying, and keeping a stash of used but still usable paper towels on the kitchen counter.
Bonus tips to green up your kitchen:
- Ditch the Keurig K-cups – and swap in eco-friendly pods that can be recycled, or better yet, get a French press
- Grow your own – and start a windowsill herb garden, or a larger one in the back yard
- Save your scraps – and start composting in its simplest form: save and freeze your scraps, then drop them off at a local composting site
- Go all glass, all the time – in other words, if it comes in plastic, buy as little of it as possible!