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7 Types of Plastic — Safety Tips and Recycling Guide

7 Types of Plastic — Safety Tips and Recycling Guide

Understanding the different types of plastic is vital in navigating the complexity of recycling, upcycling, and the health risks associated with plastic. It's a huge and complicated topic, so we've put up this blog as a basic introduction for those just starting to learn about it.

The first step is to know the basics of the common types of plastic that we encounter and use daily, numbered according to their recycling code. Here's a simple guide:

7 Different Types of Plastic

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)

Plastic #1 refers to polyethylene terephthalate, one of the most commonly used thermoplastic polymer resins. We know it as PET or PETE plastic. It's durable, lightweight, typically transparent, and often used in food packaging and fabrics (polyester) such as:

  • water and beverage bottles
  • food jars and containers
  • salad dressing and oil bottles
  • polyester clothing or rope

Safety Tips

  • PET plastic is generally safe for food and drink packaging
  • This type of plastic is generally not intended for multiple uses
  • It has a porous structure, so you'll need strong cleaning products. These products will cause carcinogens to leach.
  • Never heat PETE 1 plastic because it produces antimony leach, a toxic chemical.

Recycling PET

PET plastic is easy to recycle so it's widely accepted at most recycling plants. The plastic items are shredded into small pallets and reprocessed into new bottles. Recycled PET bottles can also be made into polyester fiber. This fabric is applied for producing carpets and fleece clothes or to stuff jackets, sleeping bags, and pillows.

2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

PET plastic is easy to recycle and widely accepted at most recycling plants. The plastic items are shredded into small pallets and reprocessed into new bottles. Recycled PET bottles can also be made into polyester fiber. This fabric is applied for producing carpets and fleece clothes or to stuff jackets, sleeping bags, and pillows.

Plastic #2 is one of the most common plastics in the world, classified into three types: High-Density, Low-Density, and Linear Low-Density. 

High-density polyethylene is durable and resistant to chemicals and moisture, which makes it ideal for cartons, containers, pipes, and other building materials. HDPE plastic has a high strength-to-density ratio, which results in superb wear resistance. HDPE products withstand freezing and heating, so they can be used in various weather conditions. 

The durability of HDPE 2 makes it efficient to be used in manufacturing various items like:

  • bottle crates
  • cereal box liners
  • detergent bottles
  • milk jugs and milk cartons
  • Sturdy bottles for cosmetics and household cleaner
  • Stools, chairs, and park benches for outdoor use
  • Toys and playground equipment
  • Flexible and rigid pipes
  • Some plastic bags

Safety Tips

  • While HDPE has a relatively high melting point compared to other types of plastic, it’s still advisable to avoid exposing it to high temperatures. This means not using HDPE containers for microwaving or storing very hot liquids, as this could potentially lead to the leaching of chemicals.
  • Regularly inspect HDPE containers for any signs of wear and tear, such as cracks or discoloration. Damaged containers can harbor bacteria or might leach chemicals more readily, so they should be replaced.
  • Be cautious about what you store in HDPE containers. While it's safe for food and beverages, storing chemicals or non-food items in these containers could lead to contamination.
  • Most HDPE plastics are BPA-free, but it’s always good to check, especially if the product will be used for food or drink. BPA exposure is a concern for many consumers, so knowing your products are BPA-free can offer peace of mind.

Recycling HDPE

  • Plastic number 2 can be reused without any harm.
  • Recycle logo plastic #2 means that it can be easily and efficiently recycled up to 10 times. Clear containers from HDPE 2 plastic are recycled back into the same new containers. Colored HDPE 2 is turned into many other items like lawns, lumber, pens pipes, toys and floor tiles.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl)

Plastic 3, or PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), is not among the safe recycling codes. It's dangerous and one of the least recyclable plastic. They can cause severe problems with the hormonal system. Some other highly hazardous chemicals like DEHA can be produced throughout the whole plastic #3 lifecycle. They may affect children's development, endocrine and immune systems. These harmful chemicals may also cause cancer. 

Number 3 plastic can be found in:

  • cleaner bottles
  • clear food wrap
  • cooking oil bottles
  • floors
  • shower curtains
  • window and door frames

Safety Tips

  • Is PVC toxic when heated? Absolutely, yes. So, never use #3 plastic for cooking and storing food.
  • Check the material of baby toys and inflatable items to make sure they do not contain PVC. Whenever possible, opt for safer alternatives to PVC, especially for household items and toys.

Recycling PVC

  • PVC is not widely recycled due to its chemical composition. Try to use #3 plastic as seldom as possible. Before attempting to recycle, check with your local waste management services. 

4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Plastic #4, or LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene), is a thermoplastic and one of the oldest grades of polyethylene. Although LDPE 4 is considered relatively safe, it is not environmentally friendly because only a tiny percentage of LDPE 4 plastic gets recycled. Some plants accept plastic #4, but only a few. 

LDPE can then be transformed into lumber and floor tiles. Compared to HDPE plastic, LDPE is more elastic and is usually used as:

  • Bread wrapping
  • Containers and trays
  • packaging foam
  • shopping bags
  • Squeezable bottles
  • Other plastic wraps

Safety

Is LDPE safe for food? Yes, plastic # 4 is among the safe plastic numbers. Is LDPE food safe? Yes, plastic number 4 is one of the safe plastic numbers.

Recycling LDPE

Given the limited availability of LDPE recycling facilities, you should reuse plastic #4 at least a few times before disposing of it.

5. Polypropylene (PP)

Plastic #5, or PP plastic (polypropylene), is the second-most widely manufactured and used plastic. It is light, sturdy, and more heat resistant, making it ideal for food storage and food packaging that is heated or holds hot items. 

Polypropylene plastic is commonly used in:

  • bottle caps or plastic bottle tops
  • disposable diapers
  • disposable plates, cups, and cutlery
  • hot food containers
  • prescription bottles
  • Yogurt containers
  • Liner in cereal boxes
  • Kitchenware

Safety

Is polypropylene a safe material? Is PP 5 plastic microwave safe, as it is commonly advised? Although recycle #5 is considered the microwave-safe symbol, it just means that the heated product will not be distorted in the microwave. According to certain research, even microwavable safe plastic can cause asthma and hormone disruption. Thus, it is best to replace plastic containers with glass.

Recycling PP

Reusing PP 5 plastic is recommended since, while some facilities recycle 5 plastics, the total percentage of recycled plastic is less than 3%. Hopefully, greater efforts will be made to recycle 5 PP and make it as effective as other recyclable plastics.

6. Polystyrene (PS or Styrofoam)

Plastic #6 stands for polystyrene or styrofoam. This is one of the plastic recycling codes that must be avoided or, at least, reused as it is hard to recycle 6 plastic. We encounter it in the form of rigid polystyrene and formed styrofoam. Plastic #6 is widely used for packaging and insulation. So PS 6 plastic can be found in:

  • Disposable drinking cups
  • CD, DVD cases
  • Egg cartons
  • Food containers to-go and disposable cutlery
  • Insulation, including building insulation

Safety

The problem with plastic number 6 is its fragility: it breaks up easily and enters the environment. Tiny pieces of PS can be found on many beaches and marine creatures. Moreover, #6 plastic contains styrene, which can be leached while heated. It is harmful to health and can cause carcinogenic effects.

Recycling PS

Is plastic 6 recyclable? Yes, it is possible to recycle number 6 plastic, but it is not available and is practiced everywhere. Considering the fast spread of polystyrene in the environment, people started creating more facilities to recycle 6 PS. Still, now it is more preferable to collect and reuse number 6 plastic.

7. Other

Oh, the infamous "other" option! This category includes every other type of plastic that does not fit into the different six categories or a mixture of various types. We include it because you may occasionally come across the #7 recycling code, and it's vital to understand what it means. This recycling logo also stands for polycarbonate, which contains highly dangerous BPA (Bisphenol A). Try to avoid products with the PC label. Recycle number 7 can be found on these items:

  • baby bottles
  • car parts
  • electrical wiring
  • lids
  • sport bottles and equipment
  • medical and dental equipment

It is challenging to recycle 7 plastic, and most factories don't accept it. There are no standard protocols for using and reusing this type of plastic, so you should opt for recycling numbers 1,2,4 and 5.

Takeaway

Even though it is almost impossible to avoid plastic nowadays, make every effort to choose alternative materials or, at the very least, safer classes of plastic. 

Remember that recycle numbers #2 and #4 and recycle symbol 5 are relatively safe to use. Even if they are microwave-safe, avoid heating them and do not put them in the microwave. Products with #3 plastic recycling numbers and recycling codes 6 and 7 should be used minimally, especially with food and beverages. Plastic#1 is not that bad, but it must be stored in a cold environment and should not be reused.

Try not to waste too much plastic. Reuse it whenever possible, and use plastics that are more likely to be recycled rather than discarded in landfills. It would be much preferable to use eco-friendly alternatives whenever possible. Use compostable and biodegradable straws instead of plastic straws, for example.

At imPASTA, we offer a range of compostable and biodegradable straws that align with reducing plastic usage. By choosing imPASTA straws, you're making a conscious decision to move away from harmful plastics, contributing to a healthier planet and reducing your environmental footprint. 

Remember, every small change adds up to a big difference. Start switching to sustainable alternatives like imPASTA straws, and join us in the journey towards a greener, plastic-free world. SHOP NOW!