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Plastics by the Numbers

I get asked a lot about plastics. I think it’s because many people are confused about the different types of plastics, what is and is not recyclable, and what all those little numbers in triangles mean.

Plastics are a big problem. They are made from a non-renewable source (petroleum), can leach toxins into your food or drink, and some types are virtually unrecyclable.

In my ideal world, we wouldn’t use plastic at all. However, that’s pretty unrealistic so what’s the answer? I think it’s to use plastics more wisely and more sparingly. You can reduce your use of disposable plastic. You can also choose safer plastics, particularly for those items that are likely to come into contact with your mouth –  the most common way the chemicals in plastic enter our bodies.

The first step to choosing safer plastics is to understand what the numbers represent. So turn your plastic container over, check out the number inside the triangle, and read on to see what those numbers mean.

Safer plastics include:

  • #1 PETE or PET (polyethylene terephthalate)  – this plastic is used for most clear beverage bottles, such as water bottles, and two-liter soda bottles. It is one of the most commonly recycled plastics on the planet. The key here is to think about the No. 1 meaning “one-time use”. So don’t reuse single-use plastics. They can break down and release chemicals into your food or beverage when used repeatedly.
  • #2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene) – used to make most milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and laundry detergent bottles. Because No. 2 plastic has been found not to leach, many reusable water bottles are now made from this plastic rather than No. 7 as they were previously.
  • #4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene) – used in most plastic shopping bags, food storage bags, some cling wraps and some squeeze bottles.
  • #5 PP (polypropylene) – used in opaque, hard containers, including some baby bottles, cups and bowls, and reusable storage container (i.e. Tupperware). Drinking straws, yogurt containers, and cottage cheese containers are sometimes made with this. This plastic has a higher temperature limit than the others, so it is sometimes referred to as “food-grade plastic”.

Avoid These Plastics:

  • #3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – commonly called “vinyl” is used in commercial plastic wraps and salad dressing bottles, shower curtains, and believe it or not, kids toys, backpacks, lunch bags, and binders. PVC contains phthalate (softeners need to make the plastic bend) and they have been found to interfere with hormonal development. The production of and burning of PVC plastic releases dioxin, a known carcinogen, into the atmosphere. It’s bad for our health and bad for the environment.
  • #6 PS (polystyrene)  – used in Styrofoam cups, meat trays and “clam-shell”-type containers. No. 6 plastics can release potentially toxic materials (including styrene), especially when heated. Yep, that’s right, when heated. So that insulated Styrofoam coffee cup and the “to go” container that you put hot food in, well those don’t seem like such a good idea do they? Also, styrofoam is the largest contributor to ocean plastic pollution and is virtually unrecyclable.
  • #7 Other  – A wide-range of plastic containers are lumped into this category – basically any plastic not rated 1-6. The plastic to be concerned about in this category are the hard polycarbonate plastic bottles which contain bisphenol-A (BPA). No. 7 plastic is used in some reusable water bottles, baby bottles, and some metal can linings. Soft or cloudy colored plastic is not polycarbonate. Avoid polycarbonate, especially for children’s food and drinks. Trace amounts of BPA can migrate from these containers, particularly if used for hot food or liquids.

In addition to understanding the numbers, you can also use plastics more safely by following these tips:

  • Don’t microwave in plastic containers. Heat can break down plastics and release chemical additives into your food and drink. Use ceramic or glass instead. Cover food in the microwave with a paper towel instead of plastic wrap.
  • Use plastic containers for cool liquids only, not hot.
  • Don’t reuse single-use plastics (the number one – PET plastics). They can break down and release plastics chemicals when used repeatedly.
  • Do not use old, scratched plastic containers. Exposures to plastics chemicals may be greater when the surface is worn down.
  • Wash plastics on the top rack of the dishwasher, farther from the heating element, or by hand.
  • When using an electric mixer, use a glass or metal bowl instead of plastic to avoid chipping bits of plastic into your food.
  • Use wooden cutting boards instead of plastic ones.
  • Pick a cotton shower curtain instead of vinyl.
  • Choose glass or BPA-free baby bottles with a clear silicone nipple.
  • Avoid plastic to mouth contact, especially for babies and kids. Give your baby natural teethers like frozen washcloths.
  • Look for toys made of natural materials, like wool, cotton, and uncoated wood.
  • To avoid PVC in school supplies, check out the Center for Health Environment and Justice’s (CHEJBack-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies, which lists the most common back-to-school supplies made out of toxic PVC and suggests safer PVC-free products in over 20 product categories.

Finally, when rethinking and reducing your plastic, remember to recycle any that you don’t need or don’t feel safe using any more. Keep in mind that No. 1 and No. 2 are almost universally recyclable. Other numbers depend upon your trash service provider.

If you are serviced by Waste Management in Orange County, you can go to this page of their website, select your service area, and bring up a list of the types of plastics they accept for recycling in your curbside bin. In my service area (County of Orange Unincorporated), Waste Management accepts plastics numbered 1-7 for recycling.

To simplify plastics recycling, here is the basic rule of thumb – if the plastic bottle has a neck that’s smaller than the body and has “alor2” symbol on the bottom, nearly every recycling program will accept it.

And due to recent changes in the recycling process, you can now leave your caps on the bottles when you recycle them. Yay, no more removing and trashing the caps prior to recycling!

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One response »

  1. Pingback: Halloween: Memories Last Forever, Decorations Should Not | OC Family Blogs

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