The Seven Different Types Of Plastic

There are a few simple tools that we can use to our advantage on our journey to use less plastic, and one of those tools is the plastic type (read more about why using less plastic is important in THIS POST).

Plastic typing is a simple classification system developed in the 1970s developed as a tool to help identify which type of plastic items were made from in an effort to easier to sort and dispose of different kinds of plastics. (1)

It’s important to note that there are hundreds upon hundreds of different types of plastic out there, and when recycling became more of a focus in the 1980s, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) created the Resin Identification code. This classification system divides them into just seven different classes in an effort to develop consistency in plastics manufacturing and recycled plastics reprocessing, not as a tool to communicate with the consumer.

However, we can use this tool to decipher what is in the products we are using and become even more knowledgeable in our consumption. (7)

Plastic Labeling

Since the creation of the Resin Identification classification system, most plastic manufacturers have begun to label the plastic, specifically those used in containers and bottles which are most commonly recycled.

This code can generally be found on the bottom or side of plastic bottles or containers, inside of three chasing arrows that have come to represent recyclable materials.

Keep in mind that not all items that have this “recycle” symbol on them are actually recyclable and it is often used in applications where the recycling rarely occurs. Put that on top of that fact that there is no regulation that requires plastic to be labeled with its type and plastic that does not have a Resin Identification Code is hardly ever recycled.



Plastic #1

What Is It:
Plastic number 1 is also known as Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE). It is the most prevalent form of plastic on earth.

How To Find It:
Items made from plastic #1 include water, soda, oil, mouthwash, salad dressing and beverage bottles, paper and coffee cups, hand and baby wipes, microwavable trays, peanut butter containers, clothing and upholstery fibers including nylon, rayon and polyester.

It is generally transparent in color, though it can also be dyed, and can sometimes be identified by a circular bubble on the bottom of the bottle or container.

Usage Concerns
Making PET is an energy-intensive process. (2)

In the presence of heat, the antimony used in the manufactured of PET leaches out, which poses a concern when used both as a container for food or liquid and as fabric for clothing, especial sportswear.

Antimony is classified as a possible carcinogenic, (4) and can cause headache, coughing, anorexia, troubled sleep and vertigo (Stemmer, 1976). One study reported that respired antimony compounds could trigger premature births and spontaneous abortions (Belyeava, 1967).

One study demonstrated that antimony levels exceed CDC safety guidelines in water bottles at the following rates depending on the exposure temperatures:
176 days when stored at 60F
38 days when stored at 65F
12 days when stored at 70F
4.7 days when stored at 75F
2.3 days when stored at 80F
1.3 days when stored at 85F

When used in the form of polyester for textiles, it uses far more energy than the manufacturing of other textiles like conventional or organic hemp and cotton. In the production process, emissions can severely contaminate water sources with a number of pollutants including Antimony (3).

There are also serious concerns with using these container with hot or to heat any kind food or beverage, which makes their application in coffee cups and microwavable trays quite concerning.

Finally, polyethylene is highly porous making it’s reuse quite dangerous and not recommended.


Recyclability

Due to the fact that PET is the most consumed plastic in the world and that it’s primary application is in single use packaging and containers, it makes sense that it is also the most widely recycled plastic as well.

The US Environmental protection Agency reported that the recycling rate of PET bottles and jars was 29.1 percent in 2018 (8), though it is important to note that in most cases the integrity of plastic, including #1 PET, becomes reduced through the recycling process and therefore is actually downcycled into less robust applications like carpets, benches and even some clothing (look for RPET on the label of fabrice made form REPREVE).

Plastic #2

What Is It:
High-density polyethylene, or HDPE, the second most common form of plastic used today.

How To Find It:
Items made from #2 plastic include milk and non carbonated bottles, snack food packages, cereal box liners, detergent jugs, hair, face and body care bottles, children’s toys, rope, crates, flexible piping, shopping bags, bottle caps.

Thought it is generally more opaque and considered a bit more durable than plastic #1.

Usage Concerns:
High Density Polyethylene is generally considered to be much more safe to use in comparison to plastic number one, and can withstand somewhat higher temperatures, (9) meaning that it does not usually lose shape or warp when microwaved or cleaned in hot water.

However, this is only the case when FDA-certified Food Grade HDPE is used, and it is worth noting that not all products bearing the HDPE recycling symbol are food-grade.

It is important to note that regardless of a plastics “heat rating”, all heat encourages leaching of plastic itself from the containers, and should be discouraged. Some studies prove that even microwavable and dishwasher safe plastic can cause asthma and hormone disruption so a good rule of thumb is to shift toward using plastic in cold scenarios only.


Recyclability:
#1 PET and #2 HDPE are the only two plastic types with recycle rates over 5%.

In 2018, the US EPA reported that the recycling rate of #2 HDPE was 29.1 percent, though similar to PET #1, it’s integrity of becomes reduced through the recycling process and therefore it is generally not able to be recycled into the ideal applications, rather it can only be downcycled into less robust applications like carpets, benches and even some clothing.

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Plastic #3

What Is It:
Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.

How Do You Find It:
#3 PVC is most commonly found in piping, but is also used to make shower curtains, food (especially oil) containers, inflatable mattresses, pool toys and floats, food wrap, cleaning product bottles, window and door frames, medical tubing,

Usage Concerns:
Another widely used plastic, #3 PVC is highly toxic due to the many harmful chemicals produced in the manufacturing, disposal, or destruction of #3 PVC including:
Phthalates
• Lead
• DEHA (di(2ethylhexyl)adipate)
• Dioxins
• Ethylene dichloride
• Vinyl chloride
Effects of exposure to these chemicals may include: decreased birth weight, learning and behavioral problems in children, suppressed immune function and disruption of hormones in the body, cancer
and birth defects, genetic changes. Many of these chemicals can also easily cross the placenta causing issues in utero. (10)

Harmful chemicals created as a byproduct of PVC can also settle on grassland, here they can be consumed by livestock, and accumulate in meat and dairy products that are directly ingested by us.

Toxicity of #3 PVC plastic increases when heated so never use this plastic type with for or beverage that is hot or heating.

Recyclability:
#3 PVC plastic is rarely accepted by recycling programs, and when it is only about 0.25% is actually recycled.

Plastic #4

What Is It:
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE).

How To Find It:
Food wraps, squeezable condiment bottles, bread bags, packing foam, Styrofoam, soft toys, shrink wrap, frozen food, produce and dry cleaning bags, cling wrap, milk cartons, waxy cups.

Usage Concerns:
In terms of usage, #4 LDPE plastic is considered to be relatively safe. It’s primary usage concern is in regards to the organic pollutants are formed during manufacturing, and the fact that it is seldom recycled.

Recyclability:
In 2015 – the most recent year for which the EPA has released data – just 6.2% of LDPE generated that year was recycled. (8)

Plastic #5

What Is It:
Polypropylene (PP)

How To Find It:
Yogurt cups, medicine and ketchup bottles, kitchenware, “microwave-safe” plastic containers, disposable diapers, bottle caps, disposable plates and cutlery, straws, butter and margarine tubs, clear soup containers, outdoor carpeting, baby bottles, house wrap.

Usage Concerns:
#5 PP plastic is has a high melting point and is generally considered to be microwave and dishwasher safe because it withstands warping under these conditions, though that does not necessarily mean that plastic does not leach into food or beverage when used in the container while hot or heating.

This 2020 study showed that #5 PP is a significant source of microplastic exposure in infants via feeding bottles which have been sterilized or otherwise exposed to high-temperatures yielding average exposure levels in excess of 1 million microplastics per day. (11)

It is important to note that regardless of a plastics “heat rating”, all heat encourages leaching of plastic itself from the containers, and should be discouraged. Some studies prove that even microwavable and dishwasher safe plastic can cause asthma and hormone disruption so a good rule of thumb is to shift toward using plastic in cold scenarios only.

Recyclability:
Despite it’s relative safety in comparison to most other types of plastic, the total percentage of recycled #5 PP plastic is less than 3% due to the differences in the varieties, type and grade used in products today.

What Is It:
Polystyrene (PS).

How To Find It:
Disposable containers, food ware, packing peanuts, drinking cups, CD cases, egg cartons, plastic cutlery, insulation, aspirin bottles, appliances, electronics, automobile parts, carpet, rubber bands, surf boards, bean bags, and gardening equipment.

Usage Concerns:
#5 polystyrene contains the toxic substances Styrene and Benzene, suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins that are hazardous to humans.

Styrene which has been linked to cancer, vision and hearing loss, impaired memory and concentration, and nervous system effects, and a whole host of other health concerns.  Long-term exposure to small quantities of styrene can cause neurotoxic (fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping), hematological (low platelet and hemoglobin values), cytogenetic (chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities), and carcinogenic effects.

Styrene has been found in 100 percent of human tissue samples and 100 percent of human nursing milk samples tested.

“In 1991, the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station reported that volatile styrene monomers were found in shells of eggs after being stored for two weeks in polystyrene containers at supermarkets. Dishes cooked with these contaminated eggs contained seven times more ethyl benzene and styrene compared to those prepared from fresh farm eggs not packaged in polystyrene.” (12)

Benzene on the other hand, a water soluble chemical (meaning it easily dissolves in water), is a well-established cause of cancer in humans, immunotoxin, can reduce the production of both red and white blood cells from bone marrow, an eye and skin irritant, can cause tremors, drowsiness, confusion, and headache. (13)

Hot foods and liquids actually start a partial breakdown of the Styrofoam, causing toxins such as Styrene and Benzene to leach and be absorbed into our bloodstream and tissue.

Recyclability:
#6 Polystyrene is virtually non-recyclable.

What Is It:
Any type of plastic that doesn’t fit into the other 6 categories, including and new plastics, bio-plastics, and polycarbonate, notoriously known for containing Bisphenol A (BPA).

How To Find It:
Sports bottles, car parts, baby bottles, medical equipment, electrical wiring, oven baking bags, large office water containers, reading glasses, aluminum can lining, plastic sippy cups,

Usage Concerns:
Health effects vary depending on the resin and plasticizers in the plastic in question, which is more or less impossible to decipher because of the robustness of this plastic type.

Polycarbonate is just one of the types in this category, and is known for leaching Bisphenol A (BPA) a known endocrine disruptor. By mimicking the action of the hormone, estrogen, bisphenol A has been found to: effect the development of young animals; play a role in certain types of cancer; and create genetic damage and behavioral changes in a variety of species. (14)

Bisphenol A is widespread–one study found BPA in 95% of American adults sampled.


Recyclability:
Mixed resin plastics like #7 are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.

  1. J. (2019, September 27). Plastics and Label Applications: Understanding the Differences in Plastics. Electronic Imaging Materials. https://barcode-labels.com/plastics-and-label-applications-understanding-differences-plastics/
  2. Cann, S. (2019, July 30). #ChemicalCallout: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE). MADE SAFE. https://www.madesafe.org/chemicalcallout-polyethylene-terephthalate-pet-or-pete/
  3. Brigden, K., Hetherington, S., Wang, M., Santillo, D., & Johnston, P. (2013, June). Hazardous Chemicals in Branded Textile Products. Greenpeace. http://www.arpat.toscana.it/notizie/arpatnews/2014/025-14/A%20Little%20Story%20About%20the%20Monsters%20In%20Your%20Closet%20-%20Technical%20Report.pdf
  4. I. (1986). IARC Publications Website – Some Organic Solvents, Resin Monomers and Related Compounds, Pigments and Occupational Exposures in Paint Manufacture and Painting. IARC. https://publications.iarc.fr/65
  5. https://wayback.archive-it.org/9650/20200402005730/http://p3-raw.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/toxics/2014/Technical-Report-01-2014.pdf
  6. Belyeava AP (1967) [The effect produced by antimony on the generative function.] Gigiena Truda i Professional’nye Zabolevaniya, 11:32–37 (in Russian).
  7. Sustainable Packaging Coalition. (2019, October 17). 101: Resin Identification Codes. SPC. https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/
  8. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2018). Plastics: Material-Specific Data. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data
  9. Schwimmer, A. (2019, March 2). What Types of Containers Have the HDPE 2 Recycling Mark? Sciencing. https://sciencing.com/types-hdpe-2-recycling-mark-6627522.html
  10. Sea Studios Foundation. (2019). Smart Plastics Guide. PBS.Com. https://www-tc.pbs.org/strangedays/pdf/StrangeDaysSmartPlasticsGuide.pdf
  11. Li, D. (2020, October 19). Microplastics in hot water. Nature Food. https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-020-00171-y?fbclid=IwAR2MhF8MNcgRY4mPmy6u168WBKI2YUQJ_451Jq71DUz2hUBV-x1Q532ewuc&error=cookies_not_supported&code=2a4f0935-0c19-44e3-9e61-19fcab271280
  12. Miller, A., Mohazzebi, S., Pasewark, S., & Fagan, J. (2013). Styrofoam: More Harmful than Helpful. Rutgers.Edu. https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/38329/PDF/1/play/
  13. World Health Orginization. (2010). EXPOSURE TO BENZENE: A MAJOR PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERN. https://Www.Who.Int/Ipcs/Features/Benzene.Pdf. https://www.who.int/ipcs/features/benzene.pdf
  14. Bisphenol A (BPA). (2020). National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/sya-bpa/index.cfm

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