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Choose nontoxic baby dishes and utensils

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When baby is playing a spoon-on-bowl symphony to serenade your dinner, it’s easy to see why plastic is often used to make durable children’s dishes and utensils for feeding time. (Not to mention the “Hey, look, when I drop this, Mom picks it up!” phase.) But substances such as bisphenol A (BPA) used in polycarbonate plastic products, Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and melamine, a hard, colorful plastic common in baby dishware containing formaldehyde, have all been linked to serious environmental and health problems.

Find it! Nontoxic baby dishes and utensils

Nontoxic dishes and utensils—such as PVC-free spoons, BPA-free plastic bowls, bamboo utensils, and stainless steel and glass dishes—can help avoid the negative environmental impacts and health effects of conventional baby dinnerware.

Before you buy

If buying plastic dishes and storage containers, avoid polycarbonate plastic (those with #7 recycling code or a “PC” on the bottom). Choose instead plastic labeled with the #1, #2, or #5 recycling code. Even with these safer plastics, never heat food in them. Alternatively, ditch the plastic altogether and opt for glass or ceramic, bamboo, stainless steel, or enamel plates and feeding utensils.

Choosing nontoxic baby dishes and utensils helps you go green because...

  • BPA- and PVC-free plastic does not leach toxic chemicals into baby food or into the ground when disposed of in a landfill.
  • Plastic products are petroleum-based, bringing with them the eco-ills of petroleum procurement and production.
  • Rapidly renewable resources, such as bamboo, are easily renewed and reduce the strain on valuable forests.

The perils of plastics

There are a variety of both human health and environmental concerns related to the production, use, and disposal of baby dishes and utensils made from synthetic materials, including the use of BPA, PVC, phthalates, and melamine.

Banning BPA

Common polycarbonate plastic can leach the toxic chemical BPA, which has been linked to cancer, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity, and is especially dangerous to fetuses and children under the age of 3. A study by Consumer Reports found that babies could be exposed to BPA in a dosage that is 40 times higher than the infant exposure safety level.[1] You can identify polycarbonate plastic by the #7 in the recycling triangle on the product.

In April 2008, the Canadian government became the first to ban BPA from baby bottles (but not dishes and utensils), stating that the action was a result of a review of 150 worldwide studies on the chemical. Canada's action and the subsequent release of a US National Toxicology Program report that found BPA could cause behavioral changes in infants and children, and trigger early onset of puberty in females, led US Senate Democrats to introduce a bill that would ban BPA from all products made for infants and children under age 7. The bill would also require the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study all health risks posed by the chemical.

Mega-retailer Wal-Mart announced it would immediately pull all baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers, food containers, and water bottles made with BPA from the shelves of its Canadian stores, and said they will do the same in US stores by 2009. Playtex also announced that they will cease production of products containing the chemical.

Melamine misgivings

Many hard-plastic, brightly colored baby dishes are made from melamine instead of polycarbonate. Melamine is made with formaldehyde, which has been linked to allergies, asthma, and cancer. While the verdict is still out on how much or how often melamine leaches formaldehyde, one study by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration found that the chemical can migrate into food if the conditions are right, such as when the dishes are heated or contain highly acidic foods.[2]

Pesky PVC

PVC—a soft plastic used commonly in consumer products, including the soft plastic coating on many baby spoons—poses severe environmental risks throughout its life cycle. The manufacture of PVC creates toxic pollution, threatening the health of both factory workers and the communities surrounding factory sites. When disposed of, lead, phthalates (compounds used to make plastics soft), and other toxic additives can leach into the ground and drinking water supplies from landfills. Ninety percent of the phthalates used today are used to make PVC, and lead levels in the environment have increased by 1,000 times in the past few hundred years.[3][4]

Incineration of PVC products produces dioxins and furans, which are among the most toxic environmental contaminants and are known carcinogens. Recycling is not an option with PVC plastic: one PVC item can contaminate a batch of 100,000 recyclable bottles.[3]

Plastic, petroleum, and pollution

Plastic products are made from petroleum, a non-sustainable resource whose extraction and production has caused major environmental damage to soil, surface and ground waters, and local ecosystems. The production of petroleum also contributes to global warming. The plastics industry as a whole releases millions of pounds of toxic waste into the air, water, and soil each year, and represents 7 percent of the 5.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released by all manufacturers each year. And, of course, used plastic products that are not recycled add to the solid waste stream, clogging landfills.[5]

Pitch the plastic: Alternative materials

Seeking out alternatives to plastic dishes and utensils can be a greener way to go. Wood is a natural choice for children's products due to its durability. But if baby's wooden dishes come from tropical hardwoods, they could be contributing to deforestation and the clear cutting of environmentally sensitive areas. An area of rainforest the size of 37 soccer fields is cut down every minute.[6]

Forest ecosystems are critical: they filter the air, stabilize climate by absorbing CO2, and provide habitat for 90 percent of all land-dwelling plant and animals species. Products made from wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as coming from sustainably managed forests are available as a green alternative, as is bamboo, a rapidly renewable material.


Bamboo is extremely durable: it's seven to 10 times harder than maple, and has tensile strength superior to some steels.[7][8] It is also easier on the environment than many of its wooden counterparts. Some species grow 30 inches or more every day, significantly more than the 30 inches oak trees gain in an average year.

Bamboo does not die when harvested, either; it simply grows new stocks to replace the old ones. Bamboo's net-like root systems, unique leaves, and dense litter protects against soil erosion and reduces rain runoff. A bamboo stand will release 35 percent more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees and can sequester up to 12 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare.[8]

Stainless steel

Metals are non-renewable resources and, in 2004, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranked the metal mining industry as the nation's worst toxic polluter. The good news is that steel can be recycled repeatedly. In fact, essentially all steel products produced today contain some percentage of recycled steel. Every year, the steel recycling industry saves enough energy to power 18 million homes, and new natural resources are conserved, including 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone for every one ton of steel.[9]

Stainless steel does not occur in nature and is made from iron, nickel, chromium, and molybdenum, all of which can leach into foods. However, if the dishware is in good condition and not dinged and pitted, the amount of metals likely to get into the food is negligible.


Glass treads pretty lightly on the earth on the materials scale: it's made from simple ingredients—the minerals silica, sand, soda ash, and limestone—and it can be recycled indefinitely into new glass. Just be sure that any ceramic or glass dishes are lead-free. Lead can cause developmental and learning problems, lower intelligence, behavioral problems, cancer, strokes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, anemia, cavities, and delayed puberty even at low levels, and is the number one environmental health threat to children. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulated the amount of lead and cadmium, another toxic heavy metal, in dishes made in the US since 1980, but they do not test imported dishware. You can test ceramics at home with strips from the US Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration or your hardware store.

Related health issues

PVC contains lead, which, in addition to health problems previously noted, may be linked to almost 300,000 cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. PVC also contains phthalates, which can cause reproductive problems, premature birth, early onset of puberty, impaired sperm in men, genital defects, and reduced testosterone production.

About 10 to 15 percent of the population has a nickel (a component of stainless steel) sensitivity, which usually causes a skin rash but can trigger asthma attacks in certain circumstances. Looking for dishware with a low nickel content will help avoid a reaction.


  • bisphenol A (BPA): A chemical building block used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Studies have linked BPA to hormone disruption, increased breast and prostate cancer cell growth, and early onset puberty, and obesity.
  • formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC (volatile organic compound) family of chemicals. It is widely used in personal care products, building materials, insulation, and home furnishings. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers it a probable human carcinogen.
  • phthalates: A group of chemicals used as plasticisers in PVC plastics that are known to be testicular toxins and can disrupt hormones.
  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC): A plastic, commonly referred to as vinyl, that is dangerous to human health and the environment throughout its life cycle. When produced or burned, PVC plastic releases dioxins, which can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems. PVC also releases mercury and phthalates, which may pose irreversible life-long health threats.

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