Does It Really Matter if You Microwave Plastic?


If you’re like most parents, your kitchen—your life!—is filled with plastic. Like it or not, it’s convenient, inexpensive, and ubiquitous, especially in homes with children. But after years of feeling good about reusing those plastic containers, popping them from the dishwasher to the microwave without a second thought, we learned about a chemical called BPA (bisphenol A). Suddenly, everything from baby bottles to lunch containers boast “BPA-free” labels. What does this mean? Can you safely heat them up in microwaves and dishwashers? Or must you hand-wash all seventy-three pieces of Tupperware every night? (Please say no! Please say no!) Alas, the research is still a bit murky, not unlike those leftovers stored in plastic in your fridge. Here’s where it currently stands.


What is BPA and why do we care? BPA is a chemical that mimics estrogen and has been shown to disrupt hormone and reproductive system function in animals. Evidence suggests that prolonged exposure may be harmful to people, especially infants and children.It’s found in plastic containers and other kitchenware and may leach into foods or drinks, especially after heating or freezing, which can speed up plastic breakdown. However, researchers are still debating whether BPA actually causes health problems and, if so, how much exposure is necessary to trigger them. That means there are no clear-cut answers as of yet.

So what’s the deal with the microwave? It really comes down to who you want to listen to. If your container is labeled microwave-safe, that means the FDA says you’re good to go. George Pauli, associate director of Science and Policy at the FDA's Center for Food and Safety and Applied Nutrition, explains, “We assume there will always be something that will leach out of the container into the food, so we look at how much someone could consume over a lifetime and compare that with what we know about the toxicity of the substance." Doesn’t sound appetizing? Others advise to play it safe. Since heat can increase the rate at which chemicals like BPA leach from plastic, Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, says, "I don't microwave anything in plastic. It's really easy and fast to put my food into a ceramic or glass container and heat it that way."

Washing & Reusing: Only put plastics into the dishwasher if they have a dishwasher safe label. If you want to be extra-cautious, wash all plastics by hand or use only glass and ceramic plates and dishes. Why? In the dishwasher, food containers are exposed to detergents and heat, which may accelerate the leaching of BPA.One rule of thumb everyone can agree on: plastics that are designed for single use should only be used once, because they aren’t designed to withstand heating and cooling. Most plastics with recycling code number 1—found on the bottom of the container—are intended for single use, like disposable water bottles. (Yes, that means you should toss that Thai takeout container from six months ago.)

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