Plastics – A Consumer Guide

Do you know your plastics?
With all the news about leaching lately, it’s hard to keep the different kinds straight. Here’s a guide to the seven types, including what number you’ll likely find on specific products, some basic safety information and how easy it is to recycle.

To verify the type, look for the number inside the three-arrow logo, usually on the bottom of any container.

#1 PETE: Polyethylene Terephthalate:
A popular lightweight form is #1 PETE is often used for sodas, water and juice bottles. It is not known to leach and is easily recycled throughout the region, so this is considered a good plastic.

The recycled material is often made into carpet, tote bags and even fleece.

#2 HDPE: High Density Polyethylene:
Another common, “good” one that is not known to leach is #2 HDPE. It’s the cloudy looking plastic used in milk jugs, as well as shampoo (and other hair-care products) and some garbage bags. It’s easily recyclable through curbside pickup and drop-off centers, and the recycled material is made into everything from laundry detergent bottles to pens to lumber.

#3 V or PVC: Vinyl or Polyvinyl Chloride:
Recent news reports put #3 in the high-risk for health problems category, primarily when it comes into contact with food or is heated. There is some evidence that this type leaching phthalates, which have been linked to breast cancer and birth defects in boys’ reproductive organs.

The #3 can be stiff or elastic and is used in some wraps for foods, many children’s toys, most shower curtains and a range of cleansers and spray bottles. PVC is also a common material for plumbing pipes. This type is generally not recyclable.

#4 LDPE: Low Density Polyethylene:
This is a very elastic form used for many types of shopping bags and dry cleaning bags, as well as some food wraps and reusable food and drink containers. There’s no evidence that it leaches any toxins, and it’s generally recyclable, but not typically through curbside pickup or publicly owned recycling centers. Check with grocery stores and dry cleaners—many recycle their own. When recycled, #4 LDPE can be made into new bags and lumber.

#5 PP: Polypropylene:
This one is a fairly common, used for a variety of food containers, like ketchup and syrup bottles, as well as straws, some yogurt containers and re-usable Rubbermaid and Tupperware-type containers. There’s no evidence of leaching, although if you see visible chipping or wear inside a reusable container, toss it in the recycling bin.

#6 PS: Polystyrene:
This is another one that’s best avoided. Studies show it can leach styrene, a potential carcinogen, which is why polystyrene is banned in cities such as San Francisco and Portland, Ore. And, it’s not recyclable. But it remains quite common, especially in takeout containers, packing peanuts, CD packaging, egg cartons and some plastic cutlery.

#7 OTHER: Other mixed resins:
This is one that’s made the most headlines of late for possibly leaching bisphenol A, considered a potential hormone disruptor mimicking estrogen and perhaps causing behaviorial problems in children. Not all #7s contain bisphenol A. Number 7 is often a mix of plastics and resins and can’t be categorized into one of the first 6 categories.

Until recently, this type was used in many of Nalgene’s reusable water bottles and some baby bottles (many of which have been pulled from shelves). To err on the safe side, consider avoiding this kind of plastic, which is rarely recycled.

Dave Altman

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