by: Leslie Jones
When we were in high school and asked the question, “When am I ever going to use this again?”, we heard that we would need that math somewhere in our lives...but who would have thought it would be for recycling? Numbers, triangles, densities...what do all of these mean? Well, it’s not really math, and not as difficult as it sounds.
All recyclable plastic has a triangle on it, usually on the bottom of the container, with a number in it. This number refers to the type, or density, of the plastic used in the container. Some of these are safer to use than others and more environmentally friendly as well. Once we learn what each is and what it does we can not only know how to dispose of them, but also decide whether we want to choose a different container to cook in or alternate type of packaging for food.
Plastic #1: This is polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PETE or PET. Most disposable soda and water bottles are made of #1 plastic, and it’s usually clear. This plastic is considered generally safe. However, it is known to have a porous surface that allows bacteria and flavor to accumulate, so it is best not to keep reusing these bottles as makeshift containers.
Plastic #2: This is high density polyethylene, or HDPE. Most milk jugs, detergent bottles, juice bottles, butter tubs, and toiletries bottles are made of this. It is usually opaque. This plastic is considered safe and has low risk of leaching.
Plastic #3: This is polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. It is used to make food wrap, bottles for cooking oil, and plumbing pipes. PVC is a tough plastic but it is not considered safe to cook food near it. There are phthalates in this material–softening chemicals that interfere with hormonal development. You should minimize use of #3 plastic around food as much as possible. Never cook using food wrap, especially in a microwave oven. If the wrap is listed as microwave-safe then I would still not let it touch the food while using it in the microwave.
Plastic #4: This is low density polyethylene (LDPE). It is used to make grocery bags, some food wraps, squeezable bottles, and bread bags. This plastic is considered safe
Plastic #5: This is polypropylene. Yogurt cups and similar wide-necked containers are often made from it, as well as water bottles with a cloudy finish. You’ll also find it in medicine bottles, ketchup and syrup bottles, and straws. This plastic is also considered safe.
Plastic #6: This is polystyrene, or Styrofoam, from which disposable containers and packaging are made. You’ll also find it in disposable plates and cups. Evidence is increasingly suggesting that this type of plastic leaches potentially toxic chemicals, especially when heated. I suggest avoiding the use of #6 plastic as much as possible.
Plastic #7: This number basically means “everything else.” It’s a mixed bag, composed of plastics which were invented after 1987. Polycarbonate falls into this category, including the dreaded BPA. So do modern plastics used in anything from iPods to computer cases. It also includes some baby bottles and food storage containers which resist staining. Use of #7 plastic is at your own risk, since you don’t know what could be in it. You should dispose of any food or drink related product, especially for children, that is known to contain BPA.
To summarize, plastics #2, #4 and #5 are generally considered safe. Plastic #1 is safe too but should not be reused due to the risk of growing bacteria. Any other plastic should be used with extreme caution, especially around food or drink. The risk is even greater when heating food. For microwaving in particular, remember that microwave safe containers aren’t necessarily healthy. They just won’t melt. In general, it’s better to avoid microwaving plastic entirely and stick to glass.”*
Recycling Works, a subsidiary of the Waste-Away Group, is able to accept all plastic bottles and containers #1-7. Plastic bags, such as those from grocery stores or bread products can be recycled, but we suggest that they be taken to a free drop-off location at most large grocery stores. As far as other plastic bottles and containers....it’s a numbers game.