September is here and it is back to school for children all over Canada. A healthy lunch is so important to a child’s ability to grow and learn. You probably put a lot of thought into healthy options for the midday meal, but have you ever thought about the containers that meal is carried in? Sandwiches and snacks packed in plastic-wrap, disposable bags or plastic food containers are harmful to the environment and to your child’s health. Environmentally, plastic products in general do a lot of damage. Most people have heard of “The Eighth Continent” A.K.A “The Great Pacific Patch”. The Eighth Continent is a human made body of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean, it is estimated to be twice the size of Texas [1,930,000 km2] and over 80 feet deep; 90% of it is plastic. If the Great Pacific Patch seems a little far from home to be of interested, then consider that in 2011 The Great Canadian Shoreline Clean Up retrieved 71 200 plastic bags off our beaches and waterways across Canada.1
Plastic not only contaminates our oceans and landfills, some plastics also have the potential to contaminate us. Some plastic wrap and lunch/snack bags are made from polyvinyl chloride [PVC]. Chemicals are added to PVC to make it more flexible and translucent. Over time these chemicals [plasticizers] can leech out of the product and into our food. The health effects of plasticizers, such as phthalate, are still being debated. In the lab these chemicals are being linked with cancer, birth defects, chronic bronchitis and liver dysfunction. Some companies use polyethylene to make their plastic bags and containers. Polyethylene is safer than PVC but there is still some concern about it being a carcinogen.2
Lets look at some options to plastic food containers and sandwich bags.
Reusable Cloth Sandwich Bags
The new trend among the Suzuki set is the reusable cloth sandwich/snack bag. They often come in funky prints and in a variety of sizes. Most cloth sandwich/snack bags are made to be PVC, BPA, phthalate, latex and lead free. It should be noted that although though reusable cloth sandwich bags are considered safer than plastic bags or wrap, they are still not completely chemical free.
Cloth sandwich/snack bags are made in two parts. There is the 100% cotton or hemp outer layer and the water resistant inner layer. All cloth sandwich/snack bags rely on some form of synthetic compound to form the water resistant barrier on the inside of the bag. Some companies use polyester as a lining, others use ethylene vinyl acetate [EVA] or polyurethane laminate [PUL] to waterproof the bags. Here is a little information about the different types of bag linings.
Polyester is a synthetic textile made from polyethylene terephthalate [PET]. This is the same stuff that is use to make some plastic drinking bottles. If you have issue with plastic drinking bottles you will probably want to give bags made with polyester a miss. Keep in mind that water and other liquids kept in PET bottles are often in contact with the plastic for months. Food made for consumption during the day would only be in contact with lining of the bag for a number of hours. The textile industry considers “polyester no more toxic than wood”. It is also generally considered food safe. Still others believe that it can cause respiratory problems in susceptible people.
Polyurethane laminate [PUL] refers to fabrics that are laminated to a thin layer of polyurethane using extreme heat. PUL is used in the production of cloth baby diapers. The American Chemistry Council [ACC] put out a fact sheet on the use of polyurethane in the food industry. The relevant information is on the first page in section 4. The document makes it clear that there are many different compositions of polyurethane. Some types of polyurethane have been cleared by the FDA for use in certain types food production, and some have not. The FDA has compiled list of accepted forms of polyurethane. If you are concerned about PUL look for bags that have been FDA approved. Such as those made by The Sling Sisters. The folks at Sling Sisters sew the polyurethane coating so that it is facing away from and not touching your food. Smart! Some people have voiced concern over the safety of PUL. However, at the time of writing this article I could find no specifics as to any health concerns.
Another type of compound, EVA, is used by Planet Wise to line their sandwich bags. EVA a flexible substance and it does not require plasticizers to make it pliable. All current indications point to EVA being an inert substance, that is rapidly excreted by the body. It is currently used in hospital settings in I.V. bags. Eco companies have also started using EVA as an alternative for PVC in the production of baby products, such as pacifiers. It is also one of the alternatives to PVC recommended by the organisation Health Care Without Harm. There are some concerns about EVA, but they refer particularly to people working with the substance in high levels in an industrial environment. You can make your own informed decision about the safety of EVA by clicking here. It will take you to a link with information about vinyl acetate, which is a component of the ethylene vinyl acetate.
Stainless Steel Containers
If you would like your little tyke’s lunch to be as chemical free as possible you should use all metal containers. These boxes are BPA, PVC and phthalate free because they have no plastic parts, thus you can be assured that no chemicals are leeching into your child’s food. Look for containers that are made from 100% stainless steel. Also look for containers that are either unpainted or powder coated on the outside of the lids only. Some companies such as Lunchbots also guarantee that their containers are lead free. Another advantage of stainless steel is that it is also recyclable. So once your child has grown up and become a budding environmentalist, doctor or artist her stainless steel sandwich container can begin a new life as a car, a lawnmower or a bridge!