Plastic by the Numbers: What to Choose, What to Lose

Plastic by the Numbers: What to Choose, What to Lose

A definitive, simple guide to plastic and how you use it
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Finally: a simple guide to plastics - what the numbers mean, which ones are safe, and which ones are not.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010 - 8:19am


With oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the tiny firestorm that erupted around Greenopolis’ partnership with PepsiCo to recapture bottles and cans, and some of the pushback on my recent blog How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plastic, I thought I’d bring a little data on plastics to the conversation.

First of all, two-thirds of all the oil we extract is used for transportation fuel. Plastics, chemicals, and other uses make up the other third. Plastics are also made from natural gas, and can be made from plant materials. Which doesn’t make them biodegradable necessarily. Some fossil fuel based plastics can biodegrade, and some biobased plastics don’t. Using food crops like corn for plastics can raise food prices for the poor. And in some cases plastics have a smaller environmental foot print than other materials like steel or glass or wood. When it comes to plastic, there are no simple answers. It’s usually situational, not black and white. If we stopped using all plastics tomorrow, we would likely strip the planet of critical natural resources for substitutes. There’s no black and white here, but shades of gray; not all plastics are created equal. It’s a lot like picking mushrooms- you need to be able to identify the ones you want.

Whatever the plastic, recycling it saves energy and a trip to the oil or gas well. So that’s step one — reuse, recapture, and recycle as much as we possibly can. The rest can be used for energy. Under no circumstances should any plastic be landfilled or tossed- except for fully compostable bioplastics. We need to close the loop on plastics and take them to higher and higher usefulness and purpose. PET bottles can become new bottles or a bucket, computer housing, appliance part, building material. Plastic's durability suggests that we use it for increasingly durable applications, in its first, second third or later life.

But what about toxicity? One of our Facebook fans suggested we read Slow Death by Rubber Duck, which we did. And given the amount of plastic that surrounds us, it’s not surprising that a lot of the chemicals that make plastics end up in our bodies. Often it’s the additives to color, soften, harden or otherwise modify the plastic that causes the problem. But some of the most common plastics are pretty benign in use. Some are not. So here’s a simple guide that is aligned with even books like Rubber Duck. It’s easy to follow because it’s based on the numbers we see on nearly all plastics. Turn your plastic container over, look at the number inside the triangle, and read on to see what those numbers mean.

Safer plastics:

(I use the word “safer” because few materials, even natural ones, are totally ‘safe’ in every circumstance):

#1 PETE or PET (polyethylene terephthalate), also known as polyester. 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 at about 25%, and represents about 48% of all plastic bottles.

Packaging applications: Soft drink bottles, water bottles, beer bottles, mouthwash bottles, peanut butter containers, salad dressing containers, juice bottles, vegetable oil bottles

Recycled products: Fiber, tote bags, new PETE containers for both food and non-food products, fabric for clothing, athletic shoes, luggage, upholstery, furniture, carpet, fiberfill for sleeping bags and winter coats, industrial strapping, sheet, and film, and automotive parts, such as luggage racks, headliners, fuse boxes, bumpers, grilles and door panels

#2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene) – This is used to make milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and laundry detergent bottles. No. 2 plastic has been found not to leach. Nalgene water bottles are now made from this plastic rather than No. 7 as they were previously. 47% of all bottles are HDPE. PET and HDPE represent 95% of all plastic bottles.

Packaging applications: Milk containers, juice bottles, water bottles, bleach, detergent, and shampoo bottles, trash bags, grocery and retail carrying bags, motor oil bottles, butter and margarine tubs, household cleaner bottles, yogurt containers, and cereal box liners.

Recycled products:
Drainage pipe, liquid laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, benches, doghouses, recycling containers, floor tile, picnic tables, fencing, lumber, and mailbox posts

#4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene) - used in most plastic shopping bags, food storage bags, some cling wraps and some squeeze bottles. Because of its toughness, flexibility, and transparency, LDPE is commonly used in applications where heat sealing is necessary. It is also widely used in wire and cable insulation and jacketing.

Packaging applications: Squeezable bottles, bread bags, frozen food bags, tote bags, clothing, furniture, dry cleaning bags, and carpet

Recycled products: Film and sheet, floor tile, garbage can liners, shipping envelopes, furniture, compost bins, paneling, trash cans, lumber, landscaping ties

#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. Polypropylene has the lowest density of the resins used in packaging. It is strong and is resistant to chemicals. Since it has a high melting-point it can be utilized in applications requiring that a container be filled with a hot liquid.

Packaging applications: Yogurt containers, syrup bottles, ketchup bottles, caps, straws, medicine bottles

Recycled products: Signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, and trays

Plastics to Avoid:

These may have carcinogens like benzene or toxins like chlorine in them and can release toxins especially when heated or burned:

#3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – commonly called “vinyl”, is used in commercial plastic wraps and salad dressing bottles, shower curtains, and sad to say, kids toys, backpacks, lunch bags, and binders. 3% of plastic bottles are vinyl. 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. Find alternatives to this one. Nike has banned it from their products.

Packaging applications: Window cleaner bottles, cooking oil bottles, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, clear food packaging, wire and cable jacketing, medical tubing, with additional significant usage in household products and building materials, particularly siding, piping, and windows

Recycled products: Binders, decking, paneling, mud flaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, and mats

#6 PS (polystyrene) – used in Styrofoam cups, meat trays and “clam-shell”-type containers. No. 6 plastics can release potentially toxic materials (like benzene- a carcinogen- and styrene), especially when heated. Remember that the next time you see a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee. Polystyrene can be made into rigid or foamed products. It has a relatively low melting point, as you may find if you pour rally hot water into it. McDonald’s switched to paper packaging from this. So should you.

Packaging applications: Plates, cups, cutlery, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles, compact disc jackets

Recycled products: Thermal insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers

#7 Other – This is a grab bag of plastics - anything that doesn’t fall into categories 1-6 or combines 2 or more of them. A wide-range of plastic containers are lumped into this category This includes those 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.

Packaging applications: Three and five gallon water bottles, certain food product bottles

Recycled products: Plastic lumber, custom-made products

Beyond understanding the numbers, you can also use plastics more safely:

  • 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. Recycle them.

  • Recycle 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.

  • Blend, mix, whip in glass or metal bowl instead of plastic to avoid chipping bits of plastic into your food.

  • Use wood instead of plastic cutting boards.

  • Use a cotton shower curtain instead of vinyl.

  • Choose glass or BPA-free baby bottles with a clear silicone nipples.

  • Don’t let your kids chew on plastic. 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 this Back-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.

Finally, when rethinking 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. Give all your plastics another life! is dedicated to our users. We focus our attention on changing the world through recycling, waste-to-energy and conservation. We reward our users for their sustainable behavior on our website, through our Greenopolis recycling kiosks and with curbside recycling programs.