Whether you want to store last night’s leftovers or stockpile food and water for emergencies, it’s important that you use food-safe containers. Plastic containers which are not food safe can leach chemicals into your food, potentially causing health issues later down the line.
Here’s what you need to know about food-safe plastics for storing food and water, including food-grade buckets and water containers.
What Makes a Plastic Safe or Unsafe for Food?
In the United States, the FDA is responsible for regulating “Food Contact Substance” (FCS) safety. The regulations ensure that any surface that comes in contact with food is non-toxic. This includes all the materials used during manufacturing as well as packaging. Other countries have similar regulations.
If plastic packaging has been deemed “safe,” it will have the food safe symbol on it.
Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t test plastics to see if they are safe or not. They rely on manufacturers’ information, and many plastic chemicals haven’t been tested to determine if they are harmful. (1, 2)
Resin Identification Codes (aka Recycling Number)
The Resin Identification Code (RIC) is the little number in a triangle that you will see on most plastic packages. This number lets you know what plastic the container is made from.
A lot of people mistakenly believe that the RIC number tells you whether a plastic is safe for food or not. This is not the case. For example, many food containers are made of plastic #2 (HDPE). But many non-food grade containers (such as buckets or gas cans) are also made from plastic #2.
BPA and Plastic Packaging
Regarding plastic packaging chemicals, Bisphenol A – or BPA – gets the most attention. Numerous studies have found that BPA may leach into food or water and cause health effects like endocrine disorders, heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, fetal development problems, and cancers. (3, 4)
Plastics containing BPA are listed as safe under FDA regulations. However, because BPA is associated with many health risks, plastics containing BPA won’t make it on most food-safe plastic lists.
Just because plastic doesn’t contain BPA doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe. The chemicals used in BPA-free containers, such as BPS and BPF, may be just as harmful. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the many other chemicals in plastic that could leach into your food or water. (6)
The bottom line?
No plastic may be completely safe for food and water. Choose glass containers whenever possible. When you do have to use plastic containers (it’s hard to avoid plastic!), choose ones that are:
- Labeled as Food Safe
- Don’t contain harmful chemicals (at least any of the ones we know about now)
- Are least likely to leach chemicals
List of Food Safe Plastics
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)
- Recycling Code: #1
- Contains BPA: No
- Used for: Soda bottles, takeout containers, salad dressing bottles, peanut butter containers…
PETE is one of the most common food plastics and is generally considered safe. However, there have been reports of PETE water bottles leaching chemicals – especially when exposed to high temperatures. At around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, levels of chemicals seem to be safe. But, when temperatures get higher, dangerous chemicals start leaching into the contents faster.
If you live somewhere very hot, it might not be smart to use PET plastics for food storage. As a general rule, PET plastic isn’t recommended for long-term water storage because it develops tiny holes as it degrades, which can leak water all over your floor. (7, 8)
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
- Recycling Code: #2
- Contains BPA: No
- Used for: Milk jugs, motor oil containers, buckets, shampoo bottles, toys, pipes…
HDPE is generally considered the best food-safe plastic. It is strong and durable, which is why it is used for items like milk jugs and buckets.
Compared to other food-safe plastics, HDPE is the least likely to leach chemicals into its contents. However, HDPE containers eventually break down, which can be problematic if you want to store water in recycled milk jugs.
Note: HDPE is often used for non-food items like motor oil or cleaning products. It is NEVER safe to put food in an HDPE container that previously contained non-food items.
Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
- Recycling Code: #4
- Contains BPA: No
- Used for: Plastic wrap, sandwich bags, squeeze bottles, plastic bags…
LDPE plastics are very flexible, often used for items like six-pack rings or squeeze bottles. This type of plastic is not associated with any health risks and isn’t likely to leach chemicals. However, it isn’t used for food or water storage because it is so flexible.
- Recycling Code: #5
- Contains BPA: No
- Used for: Medicine bottles, baby bottles, lunch boxes, straws, plastic bottle tops, yogurt containers, packing tape…
Compared to other plastics, polypropylene is better able to withstand heat and exposure to acids or grease. This makes it less likely to leach chemicals. If you need to store foods like tomato sauce (acidic) or vegetable oil (grease), PP containers might be the best choice.
PP plastics are generally considered microwave and dishwasher safe. There aren’t any known health issues associated with PP plastics.
Plastics NOT Safe for Food
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
- Recycling Code: #3
- Harmful Chemicals: Phthalates
- Used for: Cling wrap, squeeze bottles, peanut butter containers…
Even though PVC plastics are labeled as “food safe” by the FDA, avoiding this type of plastic is best. It contains phthalates, a group of chemicals that can affect sex hormones. They are also associated with obesity, asthma, and congenital disabilities. (9)
- Recycling Code: #6
- Harmful Chemicals: Styrene
- Used for: Styrofoam
Better known as Styrofoam, polystyrene plastics are known to leach a chemical called styrene. The chemical is terrible for the environment and is associated with numerous health issues. It should be avoided and never heated.
Miscellaneous (Polycarbonate and Polylactide)
- Recycling Code: #7 to #19
- Harmful Chemicals: BPA
- Used for: Plastic lids, baby bottles, wires, car parts…
Plastic codes #7-19 are used for miscellaneous plastics, including Polycarbonate (PC) and Polylactide containers. While some of these plastics may be food-safe, the problem is that you can’t be sure what’s in the plastic. Many of them might contain BPA or other harmful chemicals, and they could likely leach into your food or water.
Food Safe Buckets for Storing Food
Buckets are an excellent way to store large quantities of food. Just be warned that not all buckets are food-grade, even if made from #2 HDPE plastic.
The issue is that some manufacturers use “mold release agents” to help get the mold off the buckets. These chemicals can remain on the buckets, causing them to leach into your food. Food-grade buckets will use mold-release agents, which are also food safe, or compressed air to blow the bucket off the mold.
Where to Get Food-Grade Buckets
When buying buckets for food storage, ensure they specifically say they are food-grade. You’ll also want to ensure that any lids you get are food-grade. Look for the Food Safe symbol, or it might be marked as USDA, FDA, or NSF approved.
It’s often possible to get free buckets from local retailers, especially bakeries (see these tips on where to get free prepping supplies). Make sure you know with 100% certainty what was in the bucket. You don’t ever want to store food in buckets that may have contained cleaning supplies, motor oil, or other chemicals.
Plastic Water Storage Containers
Most plastic containers, such as soda bottles, are designed to be biodegradable; they will break down over time. While it usually takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to degrade, the bottle will develop little pin-sized holes long before this.
These holes are a significant issue if you want to store water in plastic containers: in 6-18 months, water may start leaking out of recycled plastic containers. For this reason, keeping water in recycled plastic containers is NOT recommended.
Instead, invest in some sturdier containers which are designed for water storage. These should also be labeled as Food Safe and have never contained anything but food or water.
Read our review of WaterBrick storage containers.