Cracking the Code on Plastics

by carko on January 21, 2015

I was at Softball Opening Day last Saturday and the girls had a great time; parade through town, scrimmage, team photos…. free water bottles from Models! Who Hoo!

Although, I am not a big fan of plastic water bottles, they do have their purpose. After all, it’s difficult to maneuver a stainless steel screw- top water canister on a long bike ride. My top choice for portable water is a glass bottle. Water just tastes better out of glass than plastic, steel, or aluminum. It doesn’t contain harmful chemicals and it’s dishwasher safe. Although I have yet to find a safe water bottle for athletes, my children use them for school and they are a big hit in the classroom. Love Bottle is their favorite and even makes a great birthday gift for the kid who has everything.

So, when I got home and opened the give-a-way water bottle, I almost passed out from the plastic smell that was trapped inside. Ok, so I am exaggerating slightly but boy-oh-boy did it stink! Got me thinking about something that’s been on my mind for quite some time. What plastic is considered safe and what do all the numbers and letters actually stand for on the bottom of the bottles? Can I recycle it? Can I microwave it? Can I drink out of it?

Hopefully, most people know you should NEVER Microwave anything in a plastic container. (Actually, you should never microwave anything you plan to actually eat; but that’s another blog post.) The heat not only destroys your food, it can break down plastics and release chemical additives into your food and drink.

Making sense of plastics can be very confusing, but I’ll give it a shot. The toxicity of plastics is not fully understood or tested. Most plastics contain chemical additives that change the quality of the plastic for its intended. Some of the ingredients or additives known to be harmful are bisphenol-A (BPA) and plastic softeners called phthalates. They are both potent hormone disruptors that are increasingly linked to health effects like brain and behavior changes, cancer, and reproductive system damages.

A form of polyethylene or plastic was accidentally invented at the end of the 19th century when a German scientist, Hans von Pechmann, discovered a waxy residue at the bottom of his test tube. The wide use of polyethylene makes it an important environmental issue. Although it can be recycled, most of the commercial polyethylene ends up in landfills and in the oceans (notably the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). Polyethylene is NOT considered biodegradable.

I looked at my “NO BPA” Polar Water Bottle and it had the number 4 in a triangle. The smelly give-a-way bottle had a number 2 in a triangle with the letters HDPE under it. I wanted to get to the bottom of all of this coding so here goes:

According to Polar Bottle, my water bottle is made of low density polyethylene (LDPE): a durable, lightweight and FDA food grade approved material. It does not contain BPA or Phthalates, yet does contain Low Density Polyethylene. It may be a better choice for plastic, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck; let’s call it a duck.

Polyethylene is a thermoplastic made from petroleum. It ranges from very low to ultra high based mostly on its density and branching and is usually indicated on the bottom of the plastic bottle. Plastic makes up to 25% of our landfill waste and is not biodegradable, please check with your local recycling facility to determine if it’s acceptable.

Number 1: PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)
Soft drink, water and beer bottles; mouthwash bottles; peanut butter containers; salad dressing and vegetable oil containers; ovenable food trays. PET plastic is the most common for single-use bottled beverages, because it is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to recycle. It poses low risk of leaching breakdown products. Recycling rates remain relatively low (around 20%), though the material is in high demand by remanufacturers. Picked up through most curbside recycling programs.

Number 2: HDPE (high density polyethylene)

Milk jugs, juice bottles; bleach, detergent and household cleaner bottles; shampoo bottles; some trash and shopping bags; motor oil bottles; butter and yogurt tubs; cereal box liners
HDPE is a versatile plastic with many uses, especially for packaging. It carries low risk of leaching and is readily recyclable into many goods. Picked up through most curbside recycling programs.

AVOID: Number 3: V (Vinyl) or PVC

Window cleaner and detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, cooking oil bottles, clear food packaging, wire jacketing, medical equipment, siding, windows, piping; accepted by some plastic lumber makers.
PVC is tough and weathers well, so it is commonly used for piping, siding and similar applications. PVC contains chlorine, so its manufacture can release highly dangerous dioxins. If you must cook with PVC, don’t let the plastic touch food. Also never burn PVC, because it releases toxins. Rarely recycled

Number 4: LDPE (low density polyethylene)

Squeezable bottles; bread, frozen food, dry cleaning and shopping bags; tote bags; clothing; furniture; carpet. LDPE is a flexible plastic with many applications. Be sure to return your plastic shopping bags to the store for reuse.
Not often recycled

Number 5: PP (polypropylene)

Some yogurt containers, syrup bottles, ketchup bottles, caps, straws, medicine bottles
Polypropylene has a high melting point, and so is often chosen for containers that must accept hot liquid. Gradually becoming more accepted by recyclers.

AVOID: Number 6: PS (polystyrene)
Disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles, Polystyrene can be made into rigid or foam products that can leach potential toxins into foods.
Difficult to recycle.

AVOID: Number 7: Miscellaneous

Three- and five-gallon water bottles, ‘bullet-proof’ materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, certain food containers, nylon
A wide variety of plastic resins that don’t fit into the previous categories are lumped into number 7. A few are even made from plants (polyactide) and are compostable. Polycarbonate is number 7, and is the hard plastic that has parents worried these days, after studies have shown it can leach potential hormone disruptors. Difficult to recycle.

Safer choices to plastic include: cloth shower curtains, glass storage containers such as Pyrex, glass water bottles for kids and adults, wood toys, wooden cutting boards, real wood vs. vinyl floors… you get the picture right?

Stay away from anything with a 3, 6 or 7 or anything with PVC. Move away from your dependence on plastic. It’s everywhere! If you must use plastic, use with caution, especially those that are commonly found in our households and have contact with our food and our bodies.

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