Recent media reports have questioned whether the chemical BPA, found in the popular plastic polycarbonate, is truly safe for use in plastic glasses, dishes and other products that come into contact with food.
While the the facts, science, pros and cons behind the BPA question could fill a lengthy article, if you're a concerned shopper, you probably aren't too into scientific arguments -- you just want to play it safe and avoid BPA. But conflicting reports about which products might contain BPA make it tough to choose plastic drinkware and dishes with confidence.
Happily, it's quite easy to find BPA-free plastic tableware. There are many different plastics used to make drinkware and dishes -- and most are and have always been BPA-Free! But you need to know what to look for, and what to avoid. Here are a few tips to help you in your search:
Tip 1: In Plastic Tableware, if it's not Polycarbonate, it's BPA-Free
Among the many different plastics used to make glasses, cups and dishes, only ONE contains BPA, and that's polycarbonate. Polycarbonate is FDA-approved for food use and is usually found in better quality, unbreakable, dishwasher-safe plastic tableware. It's often clear or tinted, feels rigid, and appears glass-like.
But it's not the only type of plastic used in plastic tableware. Acrylic, an acrylic blend called SAN, Tritan co-polyester and even corn-based bioplastics are all used to make clear, glass-like items similar to polycarbonate. Plus, opaque plastics like melamine and polypropylene are used to make a variety of dinnerware. Unlike polycarbonate, these other plastics are, and always have been, BPA-free. So, if the BPA question worries you, look for items made of these other plastics instead of polycarbonate.
Tip 2: How to Tell if an Item is Made of Polycarbonate... or BPA-Free Plastic
Trying to identify plastic items by the label can be discouraging since product labels rarely list plastic type. Your best bet is to shop with sellers who clearly list the type of plastic used in products. Online sellers generally offer more product details like plastic type than brick-and-mortar stores. Some, like KidSmartLiving.com, go the extra mile by conveniently listing their BPA-Free tableware products on one page.
If shopping in a store where product information is scarce, first look for items labeled "BPA-Free." With media attention on BPA, manufacturers are starting to label their non-polycarbonate plastic items "BPA-Free." This includes acrylic, SAN, or Tritan for clear items, and rigid melamine or rubbery polypropylene for solid or semi-opaque items.
If not labeled BPA-Free, look at the care instructions. In clear and tinted plastics, acrylic items are generally marked "Hand-wash," or "Top-rack Dishwasher-safe," while most SAN items are marked "Dishwasher-safe" and sometimes "Microwave-safe." But these plastics aren't usually labeled "Unbreakable." Unlike polycarbonate, acrylic and SAN can break.
In solid-color plastic items, you'll rarely find polycarbonate on store shelves. Solid-color plastic dishes are more commonly made from melamine and marked "Not for Microwave Use." Polypropylene is also used for solid and semi-opaque dishes, and is easily identified by its rubbery feel.
The only clear tableware plastics you'll find labeled "Unbreakable, Dishwasher-safe" and sometimes "Microwave-safe" are Tritan and polycarbonate. Luckily for shoppers, being BPA-Free is a major selling point for Tritan, so these items are usually labeled as such. If a clear or tinted glass-like plastic product is labeled "Unbreakable, Dishwasher-safe" but is not marked "BPA-Free," it's probably polycarbonate.
Tip 3: Don't Count on the Numbers... They Don't Count for Identifying These Plastics
Contrary to some reports, the recycling numbers printed on plastic items don't differentiate polycarbonate from these BPA-free plastics. In fact, it's the reverse. Almost all non-disposable plastic tableware falls under the same catchall #7 recycling code, which simply means "Other."
The "Other" plastics are generally durable and have a longer useful life than disposable plastics, so they're not collected in residential recycling programs. These widely different #7 plastics include acrylic, SAN, Tritan, bio-plastics, melamine - and polycarbonate.
Even more confusing, recycling codes aren't required for "Other" plastics so many items don't carry a recycling mark at all. Knowing how to tell these plastics apart -- or shopping with a reliable seller -- is really much more helpful than recycling numbers when it comes to buying BPA-free plastic dinnerware.