Plastic : The good, the bad and the ugly

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There is plastic… and plastic. As a general rule, when possible, it is best to avoid and replace it. Especially in the kitchen: besides inhaling the chemicals plastic items may off gas, you may directly ingest these toxic chemicals, and them some, as they leach into the food you store in plastic containers, heat up in plastic plates, buy wrapped in plastic packaging … Consider glass, stainless steel or wood. And if switching is not an option, keep in mind that some plastics are better than others. That is, based on today’s scientific knowledge.

You probably know about that number in the revolving arrows recycling symbol on the bottom of most plastic items. It is called the Resin Identification Code, or RIC, and it categorizes the materials plastic containers are made of. From #1 to #7, here is what you need to know about them:

  • The good and not so good of #1, #2, #4 and #5  

#1 or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and #2 or HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) make up almost all disposable plastic bottles. These resins (more so #2) are said to be safe, at least for a one-time use. As with all plastic types, it is better not to refill a plastic bottle because it is not meant to be reused. Not to mention that it is also very hard to properly clean a plastic bottle. And you do not want to drink more than your beverage from it.  Delaying its recycling is laudable but not a good enough reason to put your health at risk.

Re-used plastic food packages

How gum’s boxes can store buttons or kids jewelry and more

The other big advantage of plastics #1 and #2: they are recyclable via most waste management programs. But even better than recycling, is re-using. If you can get more uses from an item (just NOT in connection with food) before recycling it, that is a small difference that will add up from an environment standpoint. So try and think of ways to reuse these #1 and #2 plastics as storage containers for non edible items and do your best to prolong their life. Did you know that some companies re-use them too? Green Toys recycles plastic #2 and make their kids toys out of it, in the USA!

#4 or LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and #5 or PP (Polypropylene) are often bundled up together as the healthiest plastic options since they supposedly do not leach hormone disruptor, cancer causing or other ill health effect chemicals into your food or beverage. Hence a lot of food storage plastic containers are made of these resins. Yet, they rapidly stink, can get food-stained with multiple uses and dishwashing exposes them to high temperature cleaning water mixed with soap… Not ideal. So from a kitchen-use standpoint, once again, after you have removed the food from these containers, try to go with one of the healthier options to store or eat edibles from, like glass or stainless steel.

Preserve Gimme5 program to recycle #5 PP plastic to re-use and make toothbrushes and razors

Preserve Gimme5 bin and rules to recycle #5 PP plastic

Preserve Gimme5 program toothbrushes made out of recycled #5 PP plastic

Give your #5 plastic to the Preserve bin and they become toothbrushes

Now, the not so good: #4 and #5 are NOT commonly recyclable and quite hard to avoid. Plastic #4 is often used in the form of plastic bags protecting electronics, produce, or clothing items. Plastic #5 makes up your typical yogurt or butter cups and jugs. All items we frequently use in our daily life. Yet, for #5 a little hope comes from a company called Preserve: they melt it and use it to create upcycled household items like toothbrushes, utensils and razors. Their gimme-5 program creates a continuous virtuous cycle as it feeds an ongoing demand for these items. So if you buy products coming in #5 packaging and you are willing to commit one easy step further, bring your empty #5 containers to a participating store. Over 230 of the Whole Foods Market stores support the initiative, and between 2009 to April 2012, they have recycled over 381,000 pounds of plastic via the program.

  • The bad and the ugly of #3, #6 and #7 

Or where numbers sound better than, respectively:
– Polyvinyl chloride (#3 or PVC) possibly a cause for learning and behavioral problems in children, decreased baby birth weight, suppressed immune function and disruption of hormones in the body, cancer and birth defects, and genetic changes. That’s, among other things, your thin cling film plastic wraps, some detergent or cooking oil bottles, and your debit, credit and store cards.

– Polystyrene (#6 or PS) possibly affecting red blood cells, liver and kidney. Examples of polystyrene items? The cups by the coffee machine at work or at the mall, meat or produce trays, small individual serving yogurt pots, padding material for shipment packaging.

– And among some of #7 materials (#7 is a “catch all bucket” number for mixture of two or more plastic types), Polycarbonate, may leach Bisphenol A or BPA, a known endocrine disruptor. Animals studies showed that by mimicking the action of the estrogen hormone, BPA has been found to affect the development of young animals, play a role in certain types of cancer, create genetic damage and lead to behavioral changes in a variety of species. This particular chemical regularly attracts the media attention so many companies using #7 replaced the identified material leaching BPA. Yet, some concerns are already voiced around that new material, called out by some as possibly worse than its predecessor BPA.

To make matter worse, all these plastic types are not commonly recyclable so they end up in landfills where their lives seem to never end.

Learning how to sort out the better from the not so good is teaching ourselves to be cautious about our natural trust in any plastic food containers. We tend to both trust what is sold to us (how could a dangerous item make it to the store shelves? Right?), and fall for the appealing convenience factor of take-out containers or plastic bottles that we may trustfully re-use and re-heat several times before we discard them. There are ways to minimize possible risks associated with such exposure and in the name of the almighty precaution principle, it is always worth the extra effort to look for alternate ways to plastic in the field of food handling.

Do you have plastic items in your kitchen and in regular contact with your food? Do you know what they are made of and could you easily replace them?

Will knowing the various degrees of safety and risks associated with different types of plastic make you change your ways?

Resources: has a renowned recycling directory of over 30 materials, as well as many educative articles and ideas to recycle different material and items.
This PBS plastic list is worth keeping handy as it includes recyclability and known health issues of plastics #1 to #7.

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