Written by Christina Lorella
Many of us take comfort in purchasing items that proudly bear the universal recycling logo. By doing so, we are contributing to the greater good. We are taking a stand against the environmental damage caused by wasteful consumers. Think again!
As it turns out, that recycling logo that we have all grown to love means absolutely nothing. Rather, it is a marketing tool that is strategically placed on items to manipulate people like us into buying the product.
While the logo itself is nothing more than a promotional tool, the small number that accompanies it is, in fact, a valuable tool in determining a product’s worth. Each piece of plastic that we consume is made up of certain type of molecules, some of which can be reused and some of which cannot. The tiny number placed next to the recycling logo signifies what type of plastic was used in the production of the item.
Clearly, we have to outsmart the dishonest marketing techniques used by companies if we want to make a positive impact on this planet. Below, I have provided some resourceful information, written by Joe Barrios of Eco Village Green, to help us all become more environmentally-friendly, waste-conscious consumers.
Plastic #1: This is polyethylene terephtalate, 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. This plastic is picked up by most curbside recycling programs.
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 typically considered safe and has low risk of leaching. While it is picked up by most recycling programs, it is important to note that these types of plastics are not always reusable. If the container has a neck–that is, the opening is smaller than its base–it is recyclable. This category includes milk jugs, detergent bottles,and peanut butter jars. If the container is more of a tub, it’s not recyclable.This category includes yogurt and margarine tubs.
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 microwave. #3 plastic is rarely accepted by recycling programs.
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, but is unfortunately not often accepted by curbside recycling programs.
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, and is increasingly being accepted by curbside recycling programs.
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. It is difficult to recycle and most recycling programs won’t accept it.
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. I personally also view any other food or drink container made from #7 plastic with a good deal of suspicion. It is difficult to recycle #7 plastic and most curbside recycling programs won’t accept it.
To summarize, plastics #2, #4 and #5 are generally considered safe. Plastic #1 is safe, too, but should not be re-used 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.
I encourage you to research your local recycling programs to learn more about the methods and techniques used in your area. For a list of items accepted by recycling companies within the Seattle city limits, please click here.