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BPA: what it is and why we should avoid it

BPA, an additive found in plastic and tins used for food storage, has had a lot of bad press. If you have heard of it, you’ve probably heard that you should try to avoid it, even if you’re not quite sure why. Here I tell you what it is, why you should avoid it, and why shopping for  plastic that’s labelled “BPA-free” might not be the safe option that you think it is…

What is BPA?

BPA is short for bisphenol A, with the chemical formula (CH3)2C(C6H4OH)2 (more on this later). It is a chemical additive used in some types of plastic, particularly polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. According to Wikipedia, it has been used commercially since 1957.

Where is BPA found?

Polycarbonate plastic is the hard-wearing, scratch resistant, transparent plastic that has many uses including as food storage containers, water bottles and baby sippy cups. Epoxy resins are coatings that are used in food and drink cans to line them. There are 131 million food and beverage cans made in the USA alone every year, and most will be lined with epoxy resins containing BPA.

polycarbonate

You can check if your food containers are made from polycarbonate – they will be labelled as plastic #7.

moreBPAtins

Tins are often lined with epoxy resins that contain BPA.

Why is BPA bad?

Hormones in our body are responsible for maintaining normal cell metabolism. This hormone system is called our endocrine system. Synthetic hormones can disrupt the natural processes that occur. BPA has been found to be a synthetic hormone (also known as an endocrine disruptor). Endocrine disruptors interfere with the synthesis, secretion, transport, binding, action, or elimination of natural hormones in the body which are responsible for development, behaviour, fertility, and maintenance of normal cell metabolism.

BPA mimics the female hormone oestrogen. This has been linked to a number of side effects including increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and liver-enzyme abnormalities; brain and hormone development problems in small children; increasing cancer cell growth rates, particularly breast cancer; and sexual problems in men.

Some countries have already taken steps to ban BPA. In June 2011, the EU banned the sale of baby bottles containing BPA. Canada actually banned BPA in baby bottles in 2009. In 2012 France voted to ban the trading, marketing and promoting of all food containers containing BPA, with the ban for childrens’ products coming into effect in January 2013, and for all other containers in 2015.

Many other governments and advisory committees are still debating whether BPA should be banned completely. That there is any debate at all highlights that there is obviously some level of concern, and if the governments won’t do the right thing, we should do what we can to reduce our own exposure to BPA.

How much risk is there?

In 2011, the Harvard School of Public Health found that volunteers who ate canned soup for 5 days had 1000 times the concentration of urinary BPA compared with when they ate fresh soup.

Research shows that most exposure to BPA occurs from the diet. That means we’re eating it. So how is it getting from our containers into us?

  • BPA can leach from cans where an epoxy resin has been used, ironically, to protect the food contents from direct contact with the can.
  • BPA leaches from plastic containers when they contain acidic or high-temperatures foods.
  • Harsh cleaners have also been demonstrated to release BPA from polycarbonate containers, as does exposing them to high temperatures – including dishwashers and microwaves.

Have you ever put leftovers into a plastic container, and when you’ve emptied it out later you’ve noticed that the food appears to have stained the container? If our food can stain the plastic, then the chemicals in the plastic can stain our food. 

How can I tell if my containers are made with BPA?

Often plastics have numbers printed on the bottom of them to aid with classification (if you want to know a little bit more about what these numbers mean, read this helpful guide). Typically polycarbonate containers are described as “other” or #7, or PC. It is extremely likely that these types of plastic contain BPA. Some plastics that are labelled #3 may also contain BPA. But often food storage containers don’t contain any numbers or labelling, in which case you just don’t know.

But my brand new polycarbonate plastic containers said “BPA-free”! Surely they are safe?

BPAfree

These containers claim to be BPA-free, but is there a catch?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But companies are very clever. They are aware of the public distrust of BPA, and they want to continue to sell their plastic products. They need a way to convince us that their products are safe.

However, they also need additives to make their properties hard-wearing, transparent and heat-resistant, just like BPA would do. If they can’t use BPA, then they need another alternative.

Hello, BPS.

BPS, or bisphenol S, is a plasticising agent that has become increasingly common since BPA got all the bad press. The chemical structure of BPS is remarkably similar to that of BPA – and it turns out it it also acts as a synthetic oestrogen and endocrine disruptor.

And what about BPAF, or bisphenol AF?

BisphenolStructure

The chemistry of BPA and its alternatives

Remarkably similar, don’t you think? The main advantage of using these alternative chemicals is that they get round any bans on BPA products, and allow such products to be labelled BPA-free.

There is no requirement for companies to tell consumers what additives, fillers, dyes, flame retardants, plasticisers, additives, antibacterials, perfumes have been added to plastic products. When it comes to food storage, the safest thing is to avoid plastic altogether.

What are the alternatives?

Here’s my three top tips for avoiding BPA in your food.

1. Cut back on cans.

It’s almost impossible to tell if a can contains BPA until you’ve opened it, and even cans labelled as BPA-free may have other unsavoury additives, so where possible, avoid cans and choose alternatives.

2. Stop using plastic containers for food storage.

That doesn’t mean throwing them away, just re-purposing them for non-food storage.Glass and stainless steel are much safer alternatives for food.

glassandstainlesssteel

Glass and stainless steel are great, non-reactive materials to use for food storage

If you can’t afford to (or don’t want to) splash out on a whole new storage set, try finding second hand items from your local charity shops, or reuse old glass jars – you can even use them in the freezer. Ceramic and pottery dishes are great choices too, although they might not be suitable for freezing.

3. Don’t microwave plastic!

Where you have no alternative but to use plastic, make sure you don’t put it in the microwave or heat it up in any other way (so don’t put it in the dishwasher either), as this destabilises it and causes BPA to leach into your food. If you use a plastic lunchbox, empty the contents into a ceramic or glass bowl and pop a plate on top before microwaving, or if you can, use a saucepan.

Plastic manufacturers are not required to disclose which additives are added to their plastic products, and additives are not currently tested for health implications. Until they are, we should not assume any plastics are safe. After all, BPA has been used since the 1950s, and it is only in the last few years that it has been recognised as unsafe. Plus, there’s really no need to use plastic when so many other great alternatives exist!

The gift of giving (and what it has to do with minimalism and living simply)

Meet Grace. She’s 15 years old and lives in Uganda. She’s attending secondary school, thanks to a great little charity from the UK called ACE.

UWIMANA GRACEACE stands for Aid Conservation through Education. They are committed to supporting rural primary education in rural Uganda in communities bordering the national parks, believing education is the key to conservation and poverty eradication. Whilst primary education is free in Uganda, parents have to supply pencils, exercise books and uniforms. This is complicated by the fact that many children have been orphaned dues to the AIDS epidemic, so rely on more distant family members to support them. A single class may have more than 200 children, with only one teacher and no teaching materials. Classrooms and other buildings are often in poor condition, and without electricity and safe toilet facilities.  ACE help by providing equipment including books, desks and chairs, and funding repairs and construction of new buildings and latrines.

Back to Grace. She was a pupil at one of the primary schools that ACE support. She was one of the brightest pupils, in fact, but also one of the poorest. To go to secondary school in Uganda you have to pay, and it is unlikely she would have been able to attend… were it not for ACE. In addition to their core work, ACE run a sponsorship program for the brightest and poorest pupils to attend secondary school. Which means that someone like me can pay the fees and expenses so that someone like Grace can attend school.

Their sponsorship scheme is well thought out. ACE realised that pupils who board do better than day pupils, who have to walk long distances between the school and their homes and don’t have time to study in the evenings because of needing to help their families. They decided that all sponsored pupils would board at the school. So in addition to day school fees and equipment, I also pay the boarding fees.

The money they ask for correlates with how much they need to spend in Uganda; £30 a month (around $50). It costs what it costs. If people can’t afford to commit this much, of course they are happy to accept donations for their other projects, just not for the sponsorship programme. If you’re wondering how much it all costs, it is laid out below. Total transparency.

KisoroVisionAdmissionLetterIt’s not a fluffy ‘sponsor a child’ scheme with membership packs and yearly Christmas cards. They only have one paid staff member – in Uganda. They choose their pupils based primarily on exam results but also on the poverty level of the family; not by how photogenic they are or whether they’ll look good in a glossy brochure. They don’t do glossy brochures. Their website may not be flashy, and the children in the photos may not be all smiles and laughter (that we’re used to seeing), but it just makes them more real. After all, if I was 14 years old and leaving my family for the first time, having never been away from home before, and going to a strange new place, I would probably not be all smiles either.

Being part of this means I’m making an actual difference to someone’s life. To Grace’s life. Whilst I don’t know a great deal about Grace (she sends me letters three times a year, but English isn’t her first language), I do know that when she’s not at school she lives with her mother in a temporary house built from mud, poles and metal sheets, with no electricity, no running water and a single paraffin lamp for lighting. They are too poor to own any livestock. I hope her education will open up opportunities for her as an adult.

For me, this is another great benefit of minimalism, or living simply. By not wasting my money buying stuff I don’t need, I can give it to people who can really benefit. I don’t miss the money being taken from my account. I could easily spend that same amount on coffee or chocolate or an evening out every single month and not even notice. When I think about how far such a small amount of money can go, and what a real difference it can make to someone’s life, how could I not want to do something to help?

“No-one has ever become poor by giving.” ~Anne Frank

Another step in the right direction

The parcel I’ve been waiting for all week finally arrived on Friday. Oh the excitement! I don’t order things online much anymore, but it wasn’t the idea of receiving a parcel that caused my excitement. It was the contents of the parcel…

Toilet paper.

Yes. You did read that right. Read more

The sustainable, ethical, natural way to eat – the ‘clean’ approach

Have you ever heard of clean eating? No? I hadn’t until I started preparing for the Living Smart session I presented on Healthy Homes, Healthy You back in November.

Food is one of my passions, and I wanted to cover a range of things: eating natural, whole foods; the importance of organic; shopping locally at farmers’ markets; avoiding packaged products filled with preservatives; the evils of mass-produced processed foods – low or no nutrition, fake ingredients that our bodies can’t recognise; and the huge unethical corporations we support when we buy the brands they own (and the 10 biggest companies own almost all of the everyday brands we that buy).

This is the way I eat, although it was a transition that didn’t happen overnight. As I’ve said so many times, it started with Plastic Free July – cutting out plastic meant cutting out junk, buying more raw ingredients and making more from scratch. I began to seek out organics and shop at farmers markets as I became more committed to sustainability. I also started taking a lot more interest in my health. Whereas in my twenties I could eat anything and everything and get away with it, my thirties have not been so forgiving, and my digestive system no longer appreciates being bombarded with junk. I have found that a simple approach to food is the answer. Eating fresh, nutritious, healthy food every day actually makes me feel good – and tastes delicious.

Until I started my research though, I’d never thought about a way to describe my way of eating, other than plastic-free, which doesn’t quite do it justice. Or maybe whole foods (meaning food as close to its natural state as possible), but that doesn’t cover the ethical aspects. “Plant-based” doesn’t fit because whilst I eat a lot of plants, I also eat eggs and fish. Then I stumbled across the term “clean eating”, and I realised, there was a word that described how I eat after all, and so perfectly.

Clean Eating – What does it mean?

It’s actually quite simple. There are plenty of people out there who have dreamed up complicated rules for clean eating, saying all kinds of things like: you shouldn’t eat after 6pm; you shouldn’t eat gluten, or any grains, or even things that look like grains but actually aren’t; or you should only eat by the light of the moon (okay, I made that one up – but you get the idea). I think such rules are unnecessary. Why make things complicated? The way I see it, there’s just one guideline:

“If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” ~Michael Pollan

So simple!

Of course, it can’t be taken completely literally. There are plants that are poisonous. Fish, meat and eggs may not be plants but that doesn’t mean they are bad for us. Following this rule doesn’t mean we all have to turn vegan. It’s more about understanding where our food comes from. Free range chickens that roam around in grassy meadows in small-scale farms are very different from battery chickens that have never seen daylight and are forced to live in confined, unhealthy conditions before being processed – in factories.

To me, clean eating encompasses a few things. Eating organic, and buying as local as possible. Shopping directly with producers and cutting out the middle-man (by which I mean, the supermarkets). Using ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible. Cooking from scratch. Choosing the best quality ingredients I can afford. Avoiding anything with preservatives, additives, or containing ingredients that I haven’t heard of or can’t pronounce. Choosing free range and fair trade (food produced by workers who are exploited can hardly be called ‘clean’).

Food is so important – we literally can’t live without it. Our food needs to be real in order to nourish us and keep us healthy. It needs to be grown in ways that are sustainable so that the land (and waterways) will continue to feed us for generations to come. And it needs to be grown the way nature intended. Not pumped with chemicals and drugs, or fed inappropriate feed (jellybeans, anyone?). Or worse – synthetically manufactured in a laboratory from man-made “ingredients” so it looks and tastes like food but is devoid of any actual nutrition. The only thing healthy about this is the profit that these companies generate for themselves.

“I prefer butter to margarine because I trust cows more than chemists.” ~Joan Gussow

Going Plastic-Free in Asia (Part Two – all the other plastic)

My goal was to travel around Thailand for four weeks without consuming any single use plastic. It’s what I do at home, so why should anything be different whilst I was away? I’ve already talked about how I avoided using disposable water bottles, which I thought would be the biggest battle. But there were other contenders.

The plastic straw

Thai people love straws. I thought the straw problem was bad in Australia, but there is a whole other level of straw-dependence over there. Every single drink seems to come with a straw. Of course the obvious smoothies and cocktails come with plastic straws. But less obvious drinks come with them too. If you buy bottled water to take away, it comes in a plastic bag and with a straw. If you buy a tin of fizzy pop, a straw is neatly tucked under the ring pull. Even tins of iced coffee and beer come with straws. It seems that the cultural norm is to drink your drink with a straw. Everyone does it.

Except, we didn’t want to use plastic straws.

I don’t know how to say “please don’t give me a plastic straw” in Thai. Fortunately, this didn’t matter, because I’d brought a stainless steel reusable straw with me from home. It was the single most used item on the trip. Whenever I purchased a drink, I’d whip out my straw and demonstrate that I had one, and no straw would come with the drink. I’m sure they all thought I was a crazy Westerner, but at least I was keeping to the local custom!

There were a couple of occasions where the staff forgot (there were two times that I can remember) and brought me a straw. I handed them back immediately unused, hoping that the straws would be washed and reused, but of course, they went in the bin. So usually I’d watch as staff prepared my drink, and if I saw any hands heading near the straws I’d run over, flailing my arms in the air until they panicked and handed the straw-free beverage over. I may have looked mad, but it worked.

straws

Our stainless steel straws in all their glory!

The plastic bag

The plastic bag is the other obvious contender, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be pretty easy to avoid these. Just say no when you buy something, right? But there were a couple of complications.

The first was laundry. In Thailand self-serve laundromats aren’t very common, and instead people offer a private laundry service where you pay by weight. You drop your laundry off and pick it up 24 hours later, smelling fragrant, neatly pressed… and folded in a plastic bag. It’s not like we could not use a bag altogether, because we’d have ended up dropping our underpants and socks all the way down the street. Fortunately we had brought a calico bag with us and we were able to use this instead.

laundry

Our freshly washed, neatly pressed laundry in the calico bag I’d brought with us. Plastic free!

The second was that Thai people used plastic bags as a vessel for food and drink. Literally. They pour cold drinks, hot soups, curry, sauces, coconut milk, you name it, into plastic bags, seal them up, and send you on your way.

plasticbagsThere’s no way I’d want to eat or drink anything served that’s been transported and stored in a plastic bag, even if I hadn’t given up plastic. Fortunately, our KeepCups served as containers for food, so the few times we bought something as takeaway, we didn’t need to use plastic bags.

deepfried

Battered, deep-fried sweet potato and banana – so delicious! We used our KeepCups rather than any disposable packaging.

The most important place to avoid plastic is at the beach. There are no bins so the options for rubbish disposal are taking it home, leaving it there or burying it. Of course, with the last two, it’s only a matter of time before it gets washed out to sea. Best to avoid disposable plastic altogether!

pineapple

Other Disposables

The main other disposable plastics that we were faced with were styrofoam trays (for takeaway food items) and plastic cutlery (for takeaway food items). We avoided using plastic cutlery by taking our own re-usable bamboo cutlery. The spoon was useful for ice cream and getting all the tasty coconut meat out of the drinking coconuts once they were empty, and I even managed to skin and chop up a whole mango with the knife!

cutleryAs for styrofoam, and any disposable food packaging, we avoided this by choosing to dine in rather than get takeaway. The food was fresher, we got to sit down and use metal cutlery and it looked so much more appetizing on a plate rather than stuffed in a plastic bag or cling-wrapped in styrofoam.

food

Imagine eating any of these out of a plastic bag… and yes the option was available!

Tips for Keeping Plastic-Free

There was a lot of plastic to avoid as so much stuff was packaged this way, but keeping plastic-free didn’t mean going without, it just meant looking a little bit harder for what we wanted.

I took a reusable straw, a reusable cutlery set, a KeepCup (which is a coffee cup with a lid that can double up as a small container), a cloth bag and my water bottle. All of these were invaluable. The only additional thing I’d take if I went back is a small sealable plastic container (Tupperware or similar), because the KeepCups were a little too small for most food.

bananasAmongst all the plastic out there, there were plastic-free options, which were exciting to find! These bananas were barbequed, pressed and smothered in coconut sauce, and then served on banana leaves. Plastic-free definitely makes things taste more delicious!

Rested, refreshed and ready for 2014!

Ah. Four weeks away from it all. It was fantastic. I finally managed to slow down, take the time to relax properly and have a well-needed rest. I’m feeling so much better as a result.

That’s not to say I took time out from trying to live as sustainably as possible, keeping things simple and continuing to embrace minimalism. After all, why should holidaying change anything?

Having spent four weeks with a small backpack weighing less than 6kgs, and not feeling once like I was without something I needed, I am sold on the idea of taking as little as possible when travelling. It was such a great feeling not to be burdened by a huge heavy backpack, and it certainly made traveling around much more enjoyable. Read more

Holiday packing: the battle of minimalism vs sustainability

In less than 12 hours, I’ll be on my way to the airport for a month-long break overseas. It’s not my first trip abroad, or course, but it is the first time since I really started embracing the sustainability path. The last time I went overseas I hadn’t taken part in Plastic Free July (or given up plastic), I wasn’t passionate about reducing waste, I’d never heard of simple living and i thought minimalism was a furniture/design style.

Fast forward 18 months, and all of these things have become really important to me. I don’t want my ideals to go out of the window just because I’m going on holiday, although it would be much easier to take a break from all of that too.

I have decided to pack as lightly as I can. Having been on numerous trips where I’ve taken far too much and cussed as I’ve had to haul heavy luggage all about the place, this is something I’ve been working on for years. Read more

What I’ve been up to…

Do you ever get yourself into a situation, and wonder how on earth it was that you ever agreed to get involved in the first place? This time last week, that was me. You may have noticed (from the distinct lack of personal photographs on the blog) that I’m not a particular fan of having my picture taken. So how was it that I agreed to be photographed last Monday morning wearing a pair of overalls, sitting in a knitted (yarnbombed) wheelbarrow, clutching a live chicken?

Well…

Let me tell you about the Less is More Festival. Read more

Twenty-four trees

So we’re off to Thailand in just over a week for a long-overdue rest and holiday. We’re flying there. You don’t need to tell me that flying is not a very sustainable form of transport. When I lived in England I was very disapproving of flying. Then I met my partner, an Australian, and moved out here, and it changed my perspective a little.

The first thing I had to reconsider was that wherever in the world we lived, one half of our family would be the other side of the world. Neither of us are prepared to never see our families again in order to try to combat climate change. Have you heard of food miles? Well there’s another concept, called “love miles”, which is the distance that we need to travel in order to see our friends and family and loved ones.

Before flying existed, or until it became affordable for the masses, most people would marry and remain within their communities and wouldn’t need to travel very far. I’m sure in the future, indeed I hope in the future, that flying will become so unaffordable or undesirable that this becomes the case once again, as people re-embrace their local communities. In the meantime, it is very cheap and easy to fly anywhere in the world and for most people, our love miles are pretty high.

The other thing I discovered when I moved here is that Australia is very far away from everything (and everyone) else. Even the other side of the same country is a few hours by flying, or a few days by driving. Having lived all my life in Europe, I have been spoiled. I could travel by boat or by train, or even drive, and reach numerous different countries in a matter of hours. I didn’t need to fly to see ancient ruins, buzzing modern cities, and beautiful rural landscapes, or to visit snow-capped mountains or golden beaches. I love experiencing different cultures; it makes me feel more connected to the world and travelling inspires me. In Europe it’s at your fingertips; here in Australia, it is not.

So I’ve come to accept that, living in Australia, I will probably need flying in my life, at least in the short-term.

What does this mean for the environment?

I was wondering, how much carbon will I be generating by flying to Thailand? And what can I do about it? I plugged all the info into a carbon calculator. My flight will generate 1 tonne of C02. Each way. And I’m going with my partner. So we’re generating 4 tonnes of C02, according to the calculator.

The website suggests that to offset this amount of carbon, I can pay $90, which will plant 24 trees.

I’m not really a fan of carbon offsetting. I feel like it’s a capitalist response to an environmental problem – paying money to alleviate guilt, or buying your way out of a situation. I feel like it benefits the wealthy, who can afford to pay to offset their travel more than others. I’m not completely convinced that it is the best way to help the environment. It seems so…detached. I have heard stories and worked at places that are involved with tree planting and investigated carbon trading, and my experience is that these organisations are committed to plant trees irrespective of whether they get funding by these schemes, although of course the money helps. But does it actually mean more trees get planted? Or does it mean that organisations can free up other funds to spend elsewhere? These carbon trading schemes are often run as businesses, too – so not all the money is going straight to tree-planting. I don’t like that aspect, either.

I may feel like these schemes are a little flawed, but that’s not to say that they aren’t still worthwhile. For people who are cash-rich, or time-poor, they offer a solution. And they’re making the concept of offsetting your flights easy and available to the general public. But I’m not going to be paying $90. I am, however, thinking about these 24 trees. I want to do something which I feel more accountable to. Ideally I’d like to plant my own trees. I’m wondering if there’s a local tree-planting scheme that I can get involved with (either when I’m in Thailand or back home). If that’s not possible, I hope to find a not-for-profit group to donate to where the money will go directly to local tree planting – trees that I can see.

Of course, not flying is still the best option, and I don’t intend to to be flying regularly. We don’t intend to go back to the UK every year, for example. I’ve also made a commitment not to use budget airlines, because I think that they are even more unsustainable than the bigger airlines. I don’t think flying should be cheap, and if governments didn’t allow airlines to avoid paying tax and fuel duty, it wouldn’t be. But as I now realise that I will be taking more flights over the coming years than I have in the past, I need to come up with some way of mitigating my cost to the environment in the best way that I can.

Starting with twenty-four trees.

Spreading the sustainability and clean living word

When I started this blog, I was motivated because I felt like I was at a real turning point in my life. I was on a journey… a journey that started with a bigger commitment to being more sustainable, but became so much more than that.  It has led me down all sorts of interesting paths. I felt like I was learning so much, and I really wanted to share what I was finding out, as well as keep a kind-of record of my progress.

I love being able to share what I know, and as part of that I got involved with Living Smart, a not-for-profit organisation based in Australia that provides practical knowledge and skills for people to live more sustainable lives. Read more