Stefania Geraci is no green freak. Her 6-month-old son, Dylan Glantz, eats from plastic spoons and plays with plastic toys. But when it came to choosing a bottle for him, Geraci, an attorney from Port Washington, N.Y., proceeded with extra caution. "I had a general knowledge that plastic might not be so great for the environment or for his health," she says. She ended up buying plastic bottles that are free of the hormone-mimicking chemical Bisphenol A (BPA). More recently, she began using glass bottles. "If there's an alternative that might be safer, then you use the alternative," she says. "I liked the idea of a more natural product."
Many parents with young children are wrestling with similar concerns about the safety of plastics. And they're bringing about a major shift in the marketplace. One of the chemicals at issue is BPA, which is used to make polycarbonate plastic. Many popular brands of bottles and sippy cups, including Dr. Brown's and Avent, are made of polycarbonate. Last August, a scientific panel convened by the National Institutes of Health concluded that "the potential for BPA to impact human health is a concern, and more research is clearly needed." But there is no hard science showing that BPA can leach out of bottles at levels high enough to harm human health, and the FDA maintains polycarbonate is safe.
As recently as 2006, few consumers thought twice about the materials used to make baby bottles. But a flood of plastic-toy recalls last summer, combined with news coverage of the NIH panel's conclusion, have sent parents searching for safer materials and manufacturers scrambling to meet demand. This month, Handi-Craft Company, which manufactures Dr. Brown's bottles, is rolling out its first bottles made of glass. "We are offering glass, because parents have asked for it," says Scott Rhodes, vice president of St. Louis-based Handi-Craft. But he stands by the safety of polycarbonate, adding that his newborn son drinks from the same polycarbonate Dr. Brown's bottles as Rhodes's older son used. "Polycarbonate is such a mainstay," he says, "because it is such a high-quality material." At least one other manufacturer, The First Years (owned by RC2), is exploring alternatives to polycarbonate in baby bottles. "This is an issue that goes beyond science," says Richard Liroff, executive director of the Investor Environmental Health Network. "The markets are speaking, and companies need to respond to changing markets."
Some retailers report that demand for polycarbonate bottles is already slipping. Marc Lore co-founder and chairman of diapers.com, an online merchant of baby gear, says sales of BornFree bottles, which are made of a BPA-free plastic, have outstripped sales of all his other bottle brands combined. "We put BornFree online about five months ago, and they became the best seller right out of the gate," he says. In response to customer demand, Lore is adding more BPA-free products, including the Foogo cup from Thermos and The Safe Sippy from Kid Basix, both made of stainless steel.
Major bricks-and-mortar retailers are also allotting more shelf space to alternative materials. In 2006, partly in response to a shareholder resolution brought by Liroff's group, Whole Foods banned polycarbonate baby products from its shelves and now carries only BornFree bottles and cups. Last month, Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op, a major outdoor retailer, pulled all polycarbonate food containers and water bottles off its shelves, pending a review of BPA safety by Canadian health regulators that's expected in May. And, next month, Target will offer glass bottles by Evenflo and BPA-free plastic bottles from Medela, now for sale in select stores, chain-wide. "We're trying to stay ahead of the needs of our customers," says Target spokesperson Susan Giesen, who adds that she has not yet seen a major shift away from polycarbonate products.
The interest in polycarbonate alternatives has benefited companies that have sold BPA-free items all along. I play, a 26-year-old manufacturer based in Asheville, N.C., makes a BPA-free straw cup and is expanding its line of feeding products to include bowls and utensils made from cornstarch. All of its products are free of PVC, a plastic used to make some baby bibs and soft plastic toys that was behind many of the lead-contamination recalls of 2007, and phthalates, chemicals used in PVC that have been banned or restricted in Europe and Japan.
Of course, ecofriendly items come with their own drawbacks, which could limit their market. For one, many are more expensive. A single nine-ounce BornFree bottle sells for $10.99 at diapers.com, compared with $4.99 for an eight-ounce bottle from Dr. Brown's. Thermos's Foogo sippy cup sells for $14.99, about triple the price of Gerber's polycarbonate Soft Spout cups at Amazon. Geraci says glass bottles are too heavy for her baby to hold by himself, so she uses them mainly for night feedings. I play's cornstarch products won't be dishwasher safe.
But for now, many parents are willing to pay a higher price for products they perceive as healthier for their kids. Sara Hollander Birnbaum, a mother of two from Boston, says the market still has not caught up with demand. She religiously checks sites like thesoftlanding.com, which report on the latest ecofriendly baby products, and just purchased a natural-rubber pacifier from Europe. "There are still not enough bowls, plates and toys that are safe," she says. Manufacturers, take note.