Water Filtration Systems

Water pouring into a small clear glass, blue background.
Photo by Pixabay

In Part 1 and Part 2 of my What’s In Your Water? articles, I explained the problem with contaminants in tap water. I’ve also published a list of Common Water Contaminants. In today’s article, I’ll explore different types of water filters. It isn’t as simple as just buying a water filter pitcher and calling it done; each type of filter, even within individual brands, only reduces or removes certain contaminants.

Remember, check the Environmental Working Group’s tap water database first to find out what’s in your water (link under Additional Resources below).

Water Filtration Types

These are the main types of home water filtration systems:

      • Activated carbon
      • Ion exchange
      • Reverse osmosis
      • Ultraviolet (UV) Technologies
      • Distillation

Most companies use a combination of those to reduce or remove specified contaminants.

Activated Carbon Filters

In general, these are the least expensive types of filters to buy. There are two main types: carbon block and granulated activated carbon. Carbon block is better in that it is more effective, but both types’ effectiveness depends on how quickly water flows through the filter.1 The filters on these do need to be changed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations as bacteria grows on carbon filters after a certain amount of time.

Activated carbon chemically bonds with contaminants as water flows through the filter, thereby removing it from the water we drink. However, their performance widely varies. Some remove chlorine and improve the taste of water, and others reduce – though not remove – contaminants, such as asbestos, lead, mercury, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “However, activated carbon does not remove common inorganic pollutants such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrate and perchlorate,” which are very toxic and potentially carcinogenic.2

Ion Exchange

Ion exchange is often used to soften water by reducing calcium, magnesium, barium, and radium, which can build up in plumbing and fixtures. But other contaminants remain in the water. Also, water softeners replace calcium and magnesium with sodium, so people with certain health conditions and/or who want to maintain a low-sodium diet should avoid drinking it. It should not be used for watering plants or gardens, either.3

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse osmosis is the most effective at removing contaminants. These systems usually include one or more activated carbon and sediment filters, and reduce or remove large numbers of contaminants. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) outlined how it works: “The initial activated carbon treatment captures and removes chlorine, trihalomethanes and VOCs. Next, during the reverse osmosis filtration, tap water passes through a semipermeable membrane that blocks any particles larger than water molecules. As a result, reverse osmosis systems effectively remove many contaminants, such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrates and perchlorate.” But these systems waste a lot of water, using five times more water than they make useable. The unused or rejected water is flushed down the drain.4

Another downside to reverse osmosis treatment is that it removes minerals that are essential for health, such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. Some manufacturers recommend the addition of mineral drops for remineralization.

Ultraviolet (UV) Technologies

Ultraviolet treatment is good for killing chlorine-resistant microorganisms, as it destroys 99% of viruses and bacteria in water without chemicals. However, UV is only able to eliminate microorganisms in water. It does not remove any other contaminants from water such as heavy metals, salts, chlorine, or man-made substances like petroleum products and pharmaceuticals. I have not reviewed any UV systems since they are limited in their treatment of water.

Distillation

Old-fashioned distillation vaporizes water and then condenses the steam back into water. “The process removes minerals, many bacteria and viruses, and some chemicals that have a higher boiling point than water. But it does not remove chlorine, trihalomethanes or VOCs from water.”5 I have not reviewed any distillation systems since they are limited in their treatment of water.

Person holding out a glass of water.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Water Filter Testing & Certification

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) advises that filters of the same type “can vary in their capacity to reduce the levels of specific contaminants. To ensure that a filter can significantly lower a particular contaminant, check that it has been certified to do so by an independent third-party certification company.” Though there may not be a third-party certification for every specific contaminant, the type of filter should still at least reduce the levels.6 

The Water Quality Association (WQA) offers certification regarding filters for specific contaminant removal. The NSF International also tests and certifies products. I’ve put a link to both of their sites under Additional Resources below, but I’m not convinced that those are the be-all and end-all. This is because the WQA and the NSF only follow the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While I strongly support the EPA, they are woefully behind in regulating chemicals, especially in regard to water contamination. Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land and Bottlemania, quoted Brita’s research-and-development group manager at the time her book was published in 2008: “We can’t claim to take it out if we don’t test for it, and we don’t test for it if the EPA doesn’t have a standard.”7 

Some companies use different and perhaps more thorough testing methods. Those companies should provide details about their testing methods right on their website. You can also contact the company and ask questions. If they can’t or won’t answer your questions, then they are not a reputable company and you shouldn’t purchase anything from them.

Environmental Working Group’s water filter recommendations

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a handy chart identifying the type of filter required for the removal of specific contaminants. You can find this by entering your zip code on EWG’s tap water database page, then selecting your water utility, and scrolling toward the bottom of the page. You will find a chart similar to this:

Screenshot of water filter options for the various contaminants detected in my water, from the Environmental Working Group.
Click on the chart to enlarge it.

Unfortunately, none of the types of filters above remove everything.

Water Filter Brands

There are different types of water filtration systems, including countertop water pitchers, under-sink filtration systems, and whole home filtration systems. I mainly focus on countertop water pitchers and a few under-sink filtration systems, as whole-home systems are costly, require commitment, and warrant an entirely separate article.

Let’s go through some of the specific brands of water filter systems. Please note: This is not a comprehensive list of all available water filtration systems, as there are just far too many types to review. These are the main ones I have encountered. I do not get paid or earn money as an affiliate for any product in this article.

Brita

Brita water filter pitcher, red and clear

First, let me acknowledge that I have used Brita water pitchers for almost 20 years. But I have lost trust in this company and some of the things I discovered about Brita were unsettling.

For example, I learned that Brita is owned by Clorox, a company whose vested interest is in some of the very chemicals that clean and disinfect our homes. Clorox is also used globally to disinfect water. But the chemicals in Clorox’s products contaminate our water systems with toxins that cause or contribute to many diseases. This company has a conflict of interest! They are seemingly making a profit from the pollution, though they are certainly not the only company engaging in such practices.

Brita’s Filters

Brita makes several types of filters that each filter different contaminants. They use activated carbon, ion-exchange beads, and other proprietary methods. The ion-exchange beads may be made of plastic resin, which is derived from oil. Brita filter systems do not treat bacteria or microbes. Unfortunately, none of their filters reduce or remove everything. And none remove hexavalent chromium or PFAS.

While I found Brita’s website somewhat confusing regarding their water filter systems, they do provide a breakdown of what each of their systems filters in the chart below.8 Following is an outline of the details of each filter type.

Chart showing different Brita filter systems and what they reduce or remove from water.
Click on the chart to enlarge it.

Brita’s Pitcher – Longlast Filters (also called Elite filters):

These use “proprietary active filtering agents” (meaning they are not required to share how they work) to reduce the contaminants lead, asbestos, mercury, cadmium, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, atrazine, benzene, endrin, ethylbenzene, carbon tetrachloride, dichlorobenzene, simazine, and tetrachloroethylene.9

Brita’s Pitcher – Standard Filters:

These combine activated carbon granules and ion exchange. Activated carbon granules absorb some contaminants and reduce mercury, chlorine taste, and odor. These filters also use Ion Exchange Resin to capture copper, zinc, and cadmium. Since I have used the standard filters for so many years, I was surprised to learn that the standard filters do not remove lead. We had our water tested for lead a couple of years ago (and it was not detected), but how many people have access to lead testing?

Brita’s Pitcher – Stream filters:

These seem less common but they filter only the taste and odor of chlorine, some particulates, and tricholorobenzene.

Brita’s Bottle filters:

I was initially really excited about these because they are so convenient – the bottle and filter are all in one. But these reduce the least amount of contaminants, only the taste and odor of chlorine and some particulates. These just aren’t worth the money.

Brita’s Faucet filters:

These remove the most contaminants, as they use a carbon block and reduce lead, chlorine, asbestos, benzene, tricholorobenzene, particulates, and “select pharmaceuticals, pesticides/herbicides, TTHMs and atrazine.”10 Additionally, they remove alachlor, carbofuran, chlordane, carbon tetrachloride, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, endrin, chlorobenzene, dichlorobenzene, ethylbenzene, lindane, methoxychlor, simazine, styrene, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, toxaphene, trichloroethylene, and a list of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).11

PUR

Blue and white PUR water pitcher pouring water.

PUR’s filter systems seem quite similar to Brita’s, as their regular filters reduce roughly the same contaminants. PUR filters use multiple layers of filtration and contain both a proprietary blend of activated carbon and ion exchange materials. Contaminants, such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals, are adsorbed by carbon; heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, are adsorbed by ion exchange materials. PUR claims that they were the first to obtain NSF certification for emerging contaminants, meaning chemicals suspected to cause health or environmental problems that are not yet or have only recently been regulated.12

Also like Brita, PUR’s faucet system reduces far more contaminants than their regular pitchers, especially in the categories of industrial pollutants, herbicides and pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. Here are the ingredients that their faucet filters remove, that their basic filter pitchers do not: chlorobenzene, carbon tetrachloride, DEET, o-dichlorobenzene, styrene, trichloroethylene, TCEP, TCPP, asbestos, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), 2,4-D, alachlor, atrazine, carbofuran, chlordane, endrin, lindane, metolachlor, simazine, toxaphene, bisphenol A (BPA), and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs).13 

While PUR’s faucet filters reduce a lot of contaminants, note that they do not address contaminants such as hexavalent chromium or PFAS.

3M

3M Under sink Drinking water filter

3M sells under-sink water filters and whole home water filtration systems. But this is another example of a company that I just don’t trust. They are selling us a product that removes contaminants they allowed to contaminate our water, essentially profiting from the pollution they helped create.

Further, 3M (in addition to DuPont) spent decades producing PFOA, PFAS, PFCs, etc., and improperly disposing of them. These carcinogenic chemicals are now in our soil and water supply across the United States. “3M makes water filters that reduce ‘chlorine taste and odor, trihalomethane (THM), lead, sediment, cysts, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium (hex), chromium (tri), copper, fluoride, radium, selenium, turbidity, total dissolved solids (TDS), mercury, asbestos, chloramine, MTBE and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).’ No PFCs are mentioned,” despite 3M being one of the major producers and polluters. 14 In fact, when I searched “3m pollution” on Google, I got more than 9 million results. Buyer beware.

Screenshot of a Google search for "3m pollution", and the number of results circled in red.

Invigorated Water

Invigorated Water pitcher, clear and whiteThis brand’s focus is alkaline water. Their filters remove some contaminants such as chlorine, fluoride, and heavy metals using a multi-stage filtration system. They have two Micro-Nets that catch potentially dangerous particles while allowing beneficial minerals through. Next, Zeolite – a variety of minerals that contain alkali and alkaline-earth metals – reduces fluoride, and removes heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, arsenic, zinc, and copper. Coconut shell-activated carbon removes pollutants and chemicals. Last, a ceramic ball and stone blend increases alkalinity.

Invigorated Water filter cross section diagram

However, their website claims that their filters “remove chemicals, toxins, chlorine, fluoride, heavy metals,” but it does not elaborate on specific chemicals and toxins. So I emailed the company to find out more information. Though they made me answer specific questions about my article before they would answer my questions, the company was very responsive. In the end, their filters remove heavy metals (aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, chromium-3, iron, lead, and selenium), and reduce chlorine, nitrate, fluoride, and sulfate. However, their filters do not remove chemicals or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as PFAS or hexavalent chromium.

Advocates of alkaline water claim that it improves health and provides better-tasting water. But when I researched alkaline water benefits, I discovered that these claims are controversial. Most of the major online medical websites indicate that there are few studies supporting alkaline water’s health benefits. If you’re interested in alkaline water benefits, I recommend further research.

Enviro Products Alkaline Water Pitcher

Image of Enviro Products Alkaline Water Pitcher packaging

This is also an alkaline home water system, one I discovered at Whole Foods. Their Alkaline pitcher, the one shown at left, filters chlorine only. The Alkaline Plus pitcher filters chlorine and removes lead. But their 10 Stage Plus Countertop Filter System uses multiple filtration types to filter out many contaminants, including a micron pad, activated carbon, and ion exchange. This system removes chlorine, total trihalomethanes, arsenic, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and “many other organic pollutants.” I wanted to know what “other organic pollutants” include, so I emailed the company to ask. Unfortunately, they never responded to me.

Lifestraw

Lifestraw home pitcher, white and clear, with water in it

Lifestraw’s purpose began with supporting underrepresented communities globally and fighting water-borne diseases. In 1999, they developed a plastic pipe filter to strain out Guinea worm larva and grew from there. Today, Lifestraw is a Climate Neutral Certified B Corp. They believe “everyone deserves equitable access to safe drinking water” and claim that “for every product sold, a child in need receives access to safe water for an entire year.”15

Today they offer different home systems based on the type of use, including home use, travel, outdoor, emergency, etc. Or, you can shop by water contaminant concern, such as bacteria, viruses, chemicals, lead, etc. This is really useful for someone aiming to solve a specific problem. Lifestraw seems transparent and publishes details on every product and what it specifically reduces or removes. If you are traveling globally, this seems like the type of product you’d need.

Lifestraw’s home pitcher is glass, which is quite different from most other home systems that use plastic. The filters use a combination of processes, including a membrane microfilter, activated carbon, and an ion-exchange filter. Together, this removes the majority of bacteria, parasites, and microplastics; and reduces heavy metals including lead, chlorine, herbicides, pesticides, some pharmaceuticals, and PFAS!

Lifestraw home pitcher data sheet
Click on the chart to enlarge it.

Unfortunately, for me, it does not reduce or remove hexavalent chromium (chromium-6).

ZeroWater

Zero Water pitcher with tester on leftZeroWater uses a five-stage Ion Exchange filtration to remove 99.6% of detectable dissolved solids. They claim that their filters produce water that is a similar purity level to the water from a reverse osmosis system.16 They remove antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium-3, chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium), copper, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, selenium, silver, thallium, zinc, asbestos, chlorine, cyanide, fluoride, nitrate, nitrite, and PFAS.17 The main page of this company’s website claims to be the only filter NSF Certified filter to reduce PFAS. This seems like a good option.

Berkey

Berkey Filter systems combine three types of water filtration. They use ion exchange, starting “with water going through the filter elements, which are made up of more than six different media types and billions of micropores (aka tiny holes). These holes are so small that harmful materials are unable to pass through. Next, the adsorption process keeps out harmful chemicals that are smaller than the pores. After that, harmful metals are attracted to the media using ion exchange. All of this is slowed using a gravity flow process,”18 which allows water to flow through the filter so slowly that contaminants aren’t able to get through. They do not use chemicals, such as iodine or chlorinating tablets, to purify the water. From their website: “We do not have to use chemicals in our unique ionic adsorption process mated with simple microfiltration. In short, these two methods create a pore structure so minute that contaminants are removed from the water because they simply cannot pass through the charged filtering media.”19 20 But water does retain important minerals that our bodies need.

Berkey filters remove the following (I’ve bolded the toxins in my water highlighted in What’s In Your Water? Part 1); bacteria; microorganisms (like e.Coli); viruses; trihalomethanes including chloroformchloramines; chlorine; chloride; haloacetic acids; heavy metals including lead; vanadiumchromium-6 (hexavalent chromium); manganese; and pharmaceuticals including acetaminophen; caffeine; carbamazepine; ciprofloxacin HCl; erythromycin USP; sulfamethoxazole; trimethoprim; BPA (bisphenol A); diclofenac sodium; 4-para-nonylphenol; 4-tert-octylphenol; primidone; progesterone; gemfibrozil; ibuprofen; naproxen sodium; triclosan.

They also remove (or reduce below detectable limits) so many pesticides (including glyphosate) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that I am unable to list them here (link in footnotes). They also remove or reduce arsenic; fluorine; nitrites; PCBs; phthalates; PFAS and PFCs; petroleum products; selenium; thallium; most radioactive substances including radium and strontium; rust; silt; and sediment.21 22 23

The only contaminants Berkey does not remove are nitrates and fluoride, though they offer an additional filter for the fluoride.24 The filters last a long time, through about 6,000 gallons of water, which is potentially several years of use. While Berkey advertises that the cost comes out to just 2 cents per gallon, the initial cost is high – in the $300-$400 range – and one of the most expensive set-ups in this review, but perhaps water free of toxins and carcinogens comes at a cost.

Charcoal sticks

Charcoal stick in a glass bottle with a cork top, sitting on a counter next to a small glass of water.
Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash.

Many zero wasters claim that charcoal sticks will purify drinking water, without the plastic waste that comes from all water filtration systems. Here’s how it works: “Binchotan charcoal is activated through extremely high burning temperatures, along with a rapid cooling process. Once the charcoal has been activated, the increased surface area can bind easily and is extremely porous, thus making it extremely useful at absorbing impurities and contaminants.”25 It can absorb metals found in tap water such as lead, mercury, copper, and aluminum.26

From what I can tell, charcoal sticks may remove most contaminants that activated carbon filters remove. But they will not help with volatile organic compounds, chemicals, or pharmaceuticals.

However, they are very affordable and extremely low waste. After 3-4 months of use in water, you can repurpose them. Use the sticks as an air freshener for your refrigerator, or crush them and put them in your garden soil. To ensure quality, I recommend using a well-known brand over an off-brand.

Bluevua

Bluevua countertop reverse osmosis water filtration machineThis company makes a multi-filter and reverse osmosis countertop system and an under sink reverse osmosis filtration system. The countertop model reminds me of a standard coffee maker. It has 4 stages of purification. The under sink version has 6 stages and requires installation, but the company provides instructions.

Reverse osmosis removes many contaminants! But remember, reverse osmosis typically wastes a lot of water. However, this company claims that its system only wastes water at a 1:1 ratio. They declare this to be 300% more efficient than comparable systems. The system also adds back in minerals that reverse osmosis typically removes. This product sounds great! The filtered water goes back into the fill tank.27 One thing that is not clear to me is what to do with the wastewater. The instructions indicate that the wastewater is contaminated and the company recommends “following the instruction of discarding [the] water,” only I did not see instructions on discarding the water either on the website or in the manual.

Note: There are quite a few companies making reverse osmosis systems. I researched just one for this article. AquaTru has been making reverse osmosis systems for a long time, but reviews imply that their systems have issues. Brita Pro has a whole home reverse osmosis system but appears to be only available through an authorized partner company. 

Image of hand holding a glass, getting water, under the kitchen faucet.
Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash.

Conclusion

I realize this is a lot of information, and it’s hard to know where to go from here. So let me reemphasize: first, find out what’s in your water, and what contaminants you are most concerned about. I’m most worried about hexavalent chromium (chromium-6), PFAS, VOCs, pharmaceuticals, and many others. It looks like my family will have to purchase a Berkey or ZeroWater system, but Berkey removes the most contaminants. However, it is quite expensive.

My goal is to stop using Brita, simply because it doesn’t filter out much. As soon as I purchase a new system, I’ll update this article and let you know which one we chose. I’ll also write a review on it! Please comment below on what you’re using to filter your water, as well as your experiences with water filtration! Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

Additional Resources:

Database, “EWG’s Tap Water Database,” Environmental Working Group.

Page, “Find WQA-Certified Water Treatment Products,” Water Quality Association.

Website, “Certified Products and Systems,” NSF International.

Page, “A Guide to Drinking Water Treatment Technologies for Household Use,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” cdc.gov, reviewed August 4, 2020.

Footnotes:

Ironing Mat review

Magnetic ironing mat with iron on washing machine
Photo by me

Quite a few years ago, when we lived in a 700 square foot house, I let go of my ironing board in favor of an ironing mat, one that has magnets and stays still right on top of your washing machine. I thought this was the most clever invention for people living small or with limited space. Now that I’m still using it 7 years later and living in a slightly bigger house, I figured it was time I featured it here.

About the portable ironing mat

I purchased my mat on Amazon, and while that specific one is no longer available, there are many similar mats online. It is about 33″ x 19″, foldable, and has two strong magnets on both ends to hold it securely to the washer or dryer. Several brands say these are safe to use on surfaces other than metal by using a towel underneath. I store it with the iron under the sink in the laundry room. It is several layers thick and has a quilted surface on both sides, made to withstand high heat. Like any ironing board, though, you’d never leave the iron unattended.

Close-up of the mat secured with magnets.
The magnets are very strong. Photo by me

Quilting and Crafting

I am an amateur quilter and crafter striving for a minimalist lifestyle, and I am able to use this mat for all but the largest of projects. For large projects, such as a queen-sized quilt, I borrow an ironing board – there’s no need to own one for the once every 5 or more years that I need a regular-sized board. I’ve used the mat for basic ironing and mending, small sewing projects, making lap and twin-sized quilts, and doing other crafts with my son. Honestly, I loved my mat, so much so that as I mentioned, I decided it was something I should feature on my website.

But as I sat down to write this post, I made a grim and eye-opening discovery. Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com wrote a post about replacing her “possibly toxic” tabletop ironing board and she mentioned that many ironing board covers and mats are coated with tetrafluoroethylene, a family of chemicals better known as Teflon. Once I researched it further, I confirmed that the ironing mat I’ve been using and loving for years was likely toxic.

Do not buy one of these ironing mats. See below for the best alternative.

Iron and ironing mat on a washing machine with quilt sections.
Ironing sections of a quilt I made last year. Photo by me

Dangerous fumes

All versions of this chemical non-stick coating have the potential to be very toxic to human health. Teflon in its various forms (PTFE, PFOAS, PFAS, PFOS, PFBS, etc.) is known to cause a variety of illnesses in humans and is a known carcinogen. Products coated with it can off-gas at high temperatures, so ironing on it is unsafe.

It turns out that many ironing board covers and ironing mats are coated with a version of these chemicals. I was so disappointed to learn this about my mat because I do love it. When I searched my purchase history on Amazon, I realized that I ordered and began using this during my pregnancy. I did not know many of the things I know now about unsafe toxins and chemicals in our everyday products, so needless to say this terrifies me! Did I expose my baby to these chemicals?

“Nowadays, most irons and ironing board covers are coated with tetrafluoroethylene plastic, better known as Teflon. Given that heating plastic makes it outgas its toxic fumes, irons and ironing board covers seem odd places to put it, particularly since a non-stick finish is not even necessary for the task.” -Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Toxic-Free

Wool Pressing Mat

Once I was aware of the potential dangers of a Teflon coated ironing mat, I began seeking a safe, non-toxic, chemical-free alternative. I also wanted the alternative to be small and easy to store. After reading research other bloggers have done, it turns out wool pressing or ironing mats are the best options. Many quilters swear by the wool mats and indicate that they are better because they reduce ironing time and grip the fabric well. There are many of these for sale online but look for certain aspects: make sure it is 100% wool, make sure the wool is sustainably sourced and cruelty-free, and ask the seller to not ship it in plastic! I recommend searching “wool ironing mat” or “wool pressing mat” online and reading multiple reviews from sewists and quilters. Make sure to read the comments too as there are usually additional tidbits of information there.

Iron with purple accents
Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

I plan to buy one of these in the near future, and I will update this post when I do! If you’ve had any experience with wool pressing mats or other ironing mats, please let me know in the comments below! Thank you for reading, and please subscribe. Happy ironing!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “DIY Plastic-Free Ironing Board Cover and Natural Wool Pad,” Myplasticfreelife.com, December 26, 2016.

Article, “An Honest Review of Wool Pressing Mats,” SuzyQuilts.com, accessed November 4, 2020.

Video, “Wool Pressing Mats: What is all the HYPE about?” Sparrow Quilt Company, January 12, 2019.

 

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 4

Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays.
Meat wrapped in plastic film on polystyrene trays. Note that some supermarkets, such as Whole Foods (and Earthfare before it closed) have moved away from most, if not all, polystyrene food packaging. But polystyrene still abounds in other supermarkets including Walmart, ALDI, Publix, Food City, and many others. Image by Karamo from Pixabay

In my last three articles, I’ve explored the various aspects of polystyrene and its harmful effects on human health, wildlife, and the environment. Hopefully, by now, you’re no longer reheating your leftovers in those containers. Maybe you’ve even requested that your favorite restaurant stop using them!

It is not practical to recycle polystyrene, although producers of it would have you believe otherwise. Today, I want to look at alternatives to polystyrene food containers and explore other ideas for dealing with this toxic material and waste problem it creates. Unfortunately, the alternatives all fall short.

Photo of a girl eating ice cream out of a polystyrene cup
Photo by Dan Gaken on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Alternatives to polystyrene

There are many alternatives for take-out food packaging including several ideas that have not been put into practice yet. Many alternatives are no better than polystyrene. In fact, many food packaging companies make false or misleading claims often omitting names of chemicals in their products. Let’s look at some of those now.

Plastic film linings

Plastic film-lined paperboard, such as the standard paper coffee cups, cannot be recycled because of the mixed materials. They also cannot be composted because of the plastic film. Some companies use PLA, which can be – but is not always – a biodegradable plastic film. Cups and containers lined with PLA would have to first be collected and taken to an industrial compost facility, which as you’ll recall from Part 2 of my Packaging Series, these facilities are few and far between. There are a few companies that now advertise these as backyard compostable, which is great if it is true and it is free of toxins. But this would require collecting the PLA-lined containers or cups instead of trashing them.

Plastics #1 and #2

Using #1 and #2 plastics are better in that they are much more recyclable than #6 (polystyrene), but this assumes the items make it into the recycling. I know that many fast-food restaurants use recyclable plastics, but do not provide recycling receptacles at their locations. This forces any customer wishing to recycle to take those items home. Also, the volume of throw-away items negates its positive possibilities. We must move away from plastics and our reliance on single-use disposable items.

“Compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene

In Part 2 of my Packaging Series, I wrote about “compostable” and “biodegradable” polystyrene and plastics that are really neither, as they do not break down in regular compost, nor in the marine environment. These types of polystyrene require an industrial composting facility which, as mentioned above, is not available in many places. A food service using these types of containers would have to separately collect them and ship them to a facility far away. But realistically, many of these end up in the landfill. And nothing biodegrades in a landfill. Backyard compostable plastic has started appearing on the market, but I don’t know if these are truly biodegradable and toxin-free.

Molded fiber containers

Molded fiber take-out packaging seemed like a great alternative to plastic until it was discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). This chemical causes cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children. They are the same compounds in some nonstick cookware. Worse, manufacturers advertise many of these containers as compostable. But if PFOAs get into your soil, they will also grow into your plants, as these chemicals do not dissolve or disappear. Stay away from anything containing PFOAs (also PFAs). I’ve linked an article under Additional Resources for more information on this.

Large Scale Changes

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had access to composting through municipal systems and all take-out packaging was made from real compostable products that also did not contain toxic chemicals? This would take a large-scale change to our waste management systems, but it would really change the world and make a global difference in our climate, environment, and health. Just think about how much waste we could keep out of landfills by composting food waste and food containers!

Sustainable fast food packaging idea
Sustainable fast food packaging idea by Ian Gilley of IG Design Solutions, made from biodegradable compressed paper. We need more innovations like this!

ReThink Disposable

ReThink Disposable, a program of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, tries to prevent waste before it starts. They advocate for reusable food container solutions (I’ve listed their guide under Additional Resources). They work with local jurisdictions, businesses, and consumers of take-out food packaging “to inspire a cultural shift away from the single-use “throwaway” lifestyle.” ReThink Disposable indicates that “the best way to champion our movement is by supporting ReThink Disposable businesses who eliminate and reduce disposable packaging.”1 While this program is only in California right now, we can do this and we all have the power to follow the same guidelines and practices. The organization offers multiple case studies on California businesses, including an entire school district, that switched from disposables to reusables.

Disposable cup infographic poster from ReThink Disposable

Solution

While there are many alternatives to polystyrene, none of them will have as significant an impact as simply not using single-use disposable products. Giving up these products doesn’t mean we have to be inconvenienced, it just means we have to prepare a bit more. Stopping the flow of single-use disposables just takes a little forward-thinking and intentionality, because the best solution will always be to stop using single-use disposable products. Check out my page on “11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food” for ideas! Once you stop using disposables, you’ll be surprised at how little you miss them.

As a society, we’re going to have to think outside of the box on this one. What about take-out places that allow people to bring their own glass or metal containers and drink cups? What about having a standardized exchange system? Restaurants could invest in reusable containers that customers could return for a small deposit, similar to a container deposit system. Once returned they either receive money back, credit, or their next container at no cost.

In my next and final article in this short series, I’ll explore the role of companies and municipal bans on polystyrene. If you have ideas on how to end the use of polystyrene or single-use disposable take-out containers, please let me know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Compostable plastics: are they PLAying you?” Aubrey Hills, Student Environmental Resource Center, University of California, Berkeley, March 10, 2017.

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, thecounter.org, August 5, 2019.

Guide, “Reusable Food Serviceware Guide,” ReThink Disposable and Clean Water Fund, 2015.

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