These days, most people know that plastics can be hugely problematic for human health and the environment. It’s always better to choose materials such as glass, stainless steel, or organic fabrics.
But plastics are ubiquitous and can be difficult to avoid. They're in practically every kind of household product: food containers, cleaning supplies, kitchenware, and much more. The good news is that not all plastics are created equal, and some are safer than others.
A plastic's recycling code appears as a number (ranging from 1 through 7) enclosed in a triangle. Manufacturers created these codes for recycling purposes, but they can also be used as tools that help consumers figure out which plastics contain questionable chemicals.
Here’s a quick guide that shows you which codes to look out for during those times you need to use plastic:
1. Avoid plastics marked with recycling codes 3 and 6.
These are widely used to make bibs, mattress covers, plastic utensils, and some food containers. They can contain harmful chemicals, including dioxin, a carcinogen; phthalates, which can disrupt the hormone system; and styrene, a neurotoxin.
2. Investigate plastic marked 7.
Plastics marked 7 can be made of many different materials and chemicals. Bioplastics (plastics made from natural materials) are in this category, but so is polycarbonate, which contains BPA. Bioplastics are a great alternative to traditional plastics, as they are designed to decompose quickly. However, the BPA in polycarbonate is associated with a wide range of health issues including hormone system disruption, infertility, reproductive cancers and obesity.
It’s important to take a close look at plastic marked with a 7. Check to see if it’s labeled as a bioplastic or a polycarbonate (these are marked with a "PC"). Never recycle #7 plastics, even if they're bioplastics — they can seriously disrupt the recycling stream.
3. Opt for recycling codes 1, 2, 4, and 5.
1, 2, 4, and 5 are your safest bets when choosing plastic products. Code 1 plastics are thin, clear, and found in kitchen products like water bottles, peanut butter jars, and soda containers. Code 2 plastics are thicker and opaque — often used to make milk jugs, shampoo packaging, and children’s toys. Code 4 is the softer, more flexible plastic in grocery bags, trash bags, and plastic wraps. Code 5 is a bit more rigid; think ice cream and yogurt containers, drinking straws, and syrup bottles.
It’s still important to exercise caution with your plastic products, even when they’re marked with these safer codes. Don’t use plastic to store food; never submit plastic to high temperatures (that means no leaving water bottles in a hot car!); and throw away or recycle any plastic containers that have begun to deteriorate. As plastics break down, it's easier for toxic chemicals to leach into them.