One of the most important parts of dealing with plastics for both health and environmental purposes, is familiarizing ourselves with the different types. Do you know the difference between the number 3 and number 7 types of plastic? Did you know that BPA, the highly toxic chemical found in plastic, is linked to obesity, cancer, and endocrine problems in fetuses and children? In order to help you educate yourself on these matters, Non Toxic Revolution has created this guide to the 7 types of plastic and what they mean for our bodies and the planet.
Try this: Go find a plastic container, the more typical (i.e. your most used tupperware or favorite beverage) the better. Located somewhere on that package is a a number inside of a recycling symbol – typically on the bottom, side, or top – ranging from 1 to 7. The numbers, reflecting the 7 different types of plastic available in the market
Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PETE or PET. Usually clear in color, the vast majority of disposable disposable beverage and food containers and bottles are made of #1 plastic. Another common place you’d find #1 is in your household cleaning product containers. This plastic is relatively safe, but it is important to keep it out of the heat or it could cause carcinogens (like the flame retardant antimony trioxide) to leach into your liquids. Plus, the porous nature of its surface allows bacteria and flavor to accumulate, so avoid reusing these bottles as makeshift containers. This plastic is picked up by most curbside recycling programs.
High-density polyethylene, or HDPE. Most milk jugs, detergent and juice bottles, butter tubs, and toiletries containers are made of HDPE. Usually opaque in color, this plastic is considered safe and has low risk of leaching. It is picked up by most recycling programs.
Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. It is used to make food wrap, bottles for cooking oil, shower curtains, inflatable mattresses, and the common plumbing pipes. PVC, although tough in terms of strength, it is not considered safe for cooking or heating. PVC contains softening chemicals called phthalates that interfere with hormonal development. Never cook using food wrap, especially in a microwave oven. Check the labels of inflatable, baby toys, etc. to ensure they are free of PVC (and phthalates and BPA). This plastic is rarely accepted by recycling programs.
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is used to make grocery bags, some food wraps, squeezable bottles, and bread bags. This plastic is considered to be relatively safe. The problem with LDPE is mainly an environmental one: It is not recyclable via curbside and other recycling programs. We suggest reusing them as grocery or doggie bags rather than throwing them away after one use. Of course, one would ideally have reusable totes for groceries use biodegradable poop bags. Some grocery stores accept grocery bag returns (if your local grocery store evem still uses plastic, that is).
This is polypropylene (PP). Common items produced with it include yogurt cups, medicine and ketchup bottles, kitchenware and “microwave-safe” plastic containers. Polypropylene is considered microwave-safe because it is heat resistant and therefore won’t get warped in the microwave. This does not mean it is healthy for you to consume foods which have been microwaved in it! It is always best to microwave in glass containers (there are variations in microwavable glass types as well). As long as you avoid the microwave, PP is considered a safe plastic. It is now accepted by most curbside recycling programs.
Plastic # 6
Plastic No. 6. Better known as polystyrene or Styrofoam, No. 6 plastics are found in disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles and compact disc cases.
Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, from which most disposable containers and food ware are made. Also very common in packaging, such as packing peanuts. Overwhelming evidence suggests that this type of plastic leaches potentially toxic chemicals, especially when heated. It would be wise to avoid #6 plastic as much as possible. It is difficult to recycle and only accepted by specific recycling facilities. Even worse, when not recycled, it takes hundreds and hundreds of years to decompose!
This category essentially means “everything else” and is composed of any new plastics, including bioplastics, and could also be comprised of different types of plastics. The use of plastic in this category is at your own risk since you don’t know what could be in it. Polycarbonate falls into this category, including the highly toxic BPA. Products produced include baby and water bottles, sports equipment, medical and dental devices, CD’s and DVD’s, and some computer and other technological parts. It is wise to dispose of any food or drink related product that is known to contain BPA. It is difficult to recycle #7 plastic and most curbside recycling programs won’t accept it.
Honestly, you should really stay away from plastics, but that can be difficult in such a plastic heavy society. If you are going to use them, you need to remember which are less hazardous. To summarize, plastics in categories #2, #4 and #5 are generally considered safe. Be weary of putting them in the microwave, even if they are labeled “microwave-safe”. Plastics #1, #3, #6 and #7 should be used with varying to extreme caution, especially around food or drink. Of these, plastic #1 isn’t too terrible, but needs to be stored in cool environments and should not be reused.
Even though there are “safe” plastics, one should avoid them as much as possible. Do yourself, your body, and the environment a favor and try to stick to glass, metal, bamboo and other such reusable body and environmentally friendly materials.