Different types of plastic explained
Okay, so, the European Union decided to ban the sale of bamboo cups . Why? Because it’s confusing to the people which cups are meeting the regulations and which are not. Products made from 100% bamboo are safe to use, but products made from bamboo fibers & resins aren’t since they could leak melamine and formaldehyde.
First let us explain what the exact problem is with bamboo cups:
Certain toxic chemicals called melamine and formaldehyde are exposed ONLY when the cup is heated for longer than 2 hours in 70°C and when it’s exposed to an acidic environment. Therefore, it’s strongly discouraged to heat the bamboo cup in the microwave.
When the toxins are released it can cause stomach ulcers and irritations.
7 types of plastic
Let us point out the hypocrisy. Did you know that Plastic PVC (code 3) and PS (code 6) are hormone disruptors and carcinogens (which means it can cause cancer)? Yet there are still no regulations for that. This means that when you enjoy a nice take-away burger or some glühwein in a styrofoam cup and container, you could be exposed to those dangerous substances.
To paint you a clearer picture, we’ve summed up the 7 types of plastics:
Safe numbers (1), 2, 4 and 5
code 1 - Polyethylene terephthalate
= PET/ PETE (Relatively safe)
This kind of plastic is used for water bottles, sodas, salad bowls, oil and all kinds of packaging like cookies for example. It’s relatively safe for one time use only. You can reuse your plastic bottles but just be cautious. If you keep your drink in it for too long or you put the bottle in the direct sun, it can leak toxic substances such as acetaldehyde. As mentioned above, these substances are carcinogenic and can disrupt hormone balance. Bottles like stainless steel & glass are inert and are not affected by warmth or sunlight.
PET plastic is the easiest to recycle into new bottles and even polyester fiber where some fleece clothes, carpets, jackets and pillows are made from.
code 2 - High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
This kind of plastic is characterized by their lack of transparency and firmness. For example, detergents, shampoo bottles, plastic envelopes, plastic bags and non-transparent juice bottles. Even some toys can be made from it. It’s safe and you can use it multiple times.
This one is easy and efficient to recycle. The clear containers are recycled back into the same new containers. As for the colored ones, products like floor tiles, toys or pipes can be created from it.
code 4 - Low density polyethylene (LDPE)
Recognizable from plastic shopping bags, squeezable bottles, and all kinds of soft packaging products and seals.
Only a small percent of this plastic is recycled because of its little recycling facilities. Try to reuse it at least a few times. It is the biggest contributer of plastics of the amount of trash in our oceans.
Code 5 – Polypropylene (PP)
PP is a harder kind of plastic. Most kitchen trays, bowls, microwaveable plastics and lunch boxes, yogurt containers, disposable diapers, plastic bottle tops ... are made from PP. Just like a lot of Ikea and tupperware products but BE AWARE, some of these products are actually made from the dangerous Polystyrene (code 6).
To conclude, according to the latest studies, PP is safe even for reuse. Nonetheless, even though it’s considered to be the microwave-safe symbol, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. What it does mean is that the heated product will not be deformed in the microwave. Some studies have shown that these kinds of plastic can cause asthma and hormone disruption. Just opt for glass containers instead.
The level of plastic number 5 to be recyclable depends on the type of product. Flower pots are easy to recycle. Products with multiple layers cannot be recycled. If you want them to get recycled, you should rip off all the different layers - if possible, that is mostly not the case - and put them in the correct recycling bin.
avoid numbers 3, 6 and 7
Code 3 – Polyvinyl chloride of PVC
You may wonder why we would tell you to avoid PVC. The answer lies in the usage of phthalate - a type of plasticizer - to make the PVC flexible. You can recognize them easily by the strong smell when you first use the product. What you smell are toxins like dioxide and all kinds of plasticizers which are needed to make the products flexible. Think about air mattresses, inflatable boats and mattress protectors.
What happens when you inhale these toxins? Our bodies can’t digest these substances, so they start to accumulate in our bodies. These toxins are carcinogenic and disrupt hormones as well. Imagine if you are working in a factory without safety regulations that is manufacturing these types of PVC products and you are exposed to this toxic air day in and out.
The EU did come up with some regulations about the usage of plasticizers in toys. Since kids tend to touch everything when they play and put their toys in their mouth, all their toys should always be free of phthalate. Yet all other PVC products used by adults in our day to day lives have no such regulations.
Luckily there are some alternative PVC products made with “eco” plasticizers and are therefore phthalate free. The only thing is a customer can’t really tell which plasticizer is used since there are no regulations for the manufacturer to provide this information. You can still buy all types of PVC in all sorts of shops. Yet with bamboo cups, they see no trouble banning them from all stores.
Besides the fact that plastic number 3 is bad for your health, it’s also bad for the environment. Most of these plastics are very hard and impractical to recycle because of different additives. So, let’s just avoid it.
There are some sorts of PVC that is easy to recycle but can never be mixed with other types of plastic. Since their melting point is much lower than other types, they will start melting and releasing toxins much before the other types of plastics are affected by the heat.
Code 6 – Polystyrene/ styrofoam (PS)
There’s two kinds of PS: the foam-like version and the firm version. Everyone knows those typical fast food containers to-go, egg cartons, meat containers in the supermarket, ...
! Be cautious with these.
Then there is the other kind, the firm one, like disposable drinking cups for glühwein.These cups are known to leak harmful substances such as styrene and benzene when heated. Styrene and Benzene are also carcinogenic and hormone disruptors. On top of that, PS is also very harmful to the environment. It’s very fragile and breaks into tiny pieces.
This type of plastic is very hard to recycle as it is not available and practiced everywhere. Therefore it’s best to collect and reuse these plastics when possible.
Code 7 - all others
The big group of all others including bioplastics. Examples: polycarbonate (PC), polyurethaan (PU), acryl, polyamide, … better known as the toxins that "leak" plasticizers (BPA).
In this group you can find a big variety of items like sport bottles and equipment, car parts, baby bottles, medical and dental equipment. Therefore it is hard to conclude one specific rule for usage with these types of plastics. Try to always be cautious and always look out for the label “BPA-free”.
It is hard to recycle this plastic and most factories don’t even accept it. There are also no standard protocols for using and reusing this plastic.
Where to find these numbers?
Most of the time you can find the number at the bottom of your plastic product. You’ll find a little triangle with a number and an abbreviation underneath.
! Watch out for plastics without a code
Unfortunately, plastics without any code still occur. Our advice here: avoid, avoid, avoid. Especially if it’s often in contact with your food or skin. You could also ask yourself the question, if the producers don’t even put in the effort to give it a code, is it even safe?
- We know it’s unavoidable sometimes to use plastics. But when you get the opportunity, always choose either glass and/or RVS products. This way you’ll know for sure you won’t get any toxins in your food.
- Hard plastics with the exception of PP are better most times because they contain less plasticizers.
- When heating food, try to avoid plastics. Heat can cause the plastic to ‘sweat’ and result in the release of chemical toxins. You can sometimes see this in plastic that comes out of the dishwasher that is shiny and a bit sticky. Use glass and/ or RVS instead.
- On some products, you can see ‘BPA free’ which means they don’t contain any toxic plasticizers. When it doesn’t say anything about BPA, look for the code.
Note: they are still looking into the safety of BPS, the alternative to BPA.
To make a long story short: plastic recycling numbers 2, 4 and 5 are relatively safe to use. Whereas plastic numbers (1), 3, 6 and 7 must be avoided especially with food and drinks. As for plastic number 1, this one isn’t very bad but you must store it in a cool environment and it shouldn’t be reused too many times. However, it does not indicate that you can fearlessly use "safe" plastic. All plastic products can leach toxic chemicals when heated. So, avoid putting plastic in the microwave, even if they are microwavable safe. On top of all that, it’s the worst option for our beloved planet. Try not to throw away too much plastic. Reuse it where possible and choose the plastics which are more likely to be recycled than left on the landfills.
To sum it up, whether you choose bamboo or plastic, always be cautious and make sure not to put either of them in the microwave.