PLASTICS 101 - All 7 Types of Plastic & Why They Suck
It is possible to seriously cut back on the amount of plastic in your life, which I teach on Instagram, my youtube channel, and soon my How to Quit Plastics Book. For the plastics you do use it's important to be aware of the risks they pose.
We can determine this through the Resin Identification Code, which is the number printed on the bottom of most plastic items. It helps us determine what kind of plastic resin the product is made from.
Have a scroll through the 7 plastics we mostly encounter or watch my video of Louise Hardman, inventor of the Plastic Shruder (mobile ocean plastics shredder & extruder) and Founder of Plastic Collective. She explains each plastic and which plastics are safe, best for recycling, and which to avoid.
Plastic #1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
PET is the most widely produced plastic in the world. It is used predominantly as a fiber (known by the trade name “polyester”) and for bottling or packaging. For example, PET is the plastic used for bottled water and is highly recyclable.
PET is considered safe, but it can actually leach the toxic metal antimony, which is used during its manufacture. One study that looked at 63 brands of bottled water produced in Europe and Canada found concentrations of antimony that were more than 100 times the typical level found in clean groundwater (2 parts per trillion). (3)
It also found that the longer a bottle of water sits on a shelf -- in a grocery store or your refrigerator -- the greater the dose of antimony present. It is believed that the amount of antimony leaching from these PET bottles differs based on exposure to sunlight, higher temperatures, and varying pH levels.
Brominated compounds have also been found to leach into PET bottles.(4) Bromine is known to act as a central nervous system depressant, and can trigger a number of psychological symptoms such as acute paranoia and other psychotic symptoms.
Three words or short phrases from Plastics Manufactureres to describe the major benefits of Polyethylene relative to other plastics and materials would be: Wide applications as a fiber (“polyester”), Extremely effective moisture barrier, Shatterproof.
Plastic #2: High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
There are a number of different variants of polyethylene. High and Low density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE respectively) are the two most common and the material properties vary across the different variants. HDPE, which is considered a low-hazard plastic, is a stiff plastic used for more robust plastic packaging like milk, water and juice bottles, as well as bottles for cleaning supplies, laundry detergent containers, and shampoo. It's also used to make grocery bags and cereal box liners. HDPE (like most plastics) has been found to release estrogenic chemicals.
In one study, 95 percent of all plastic products tested were positive for estrogenic activity, meaning they can potentially disrupt your hormones and even alter the structure of human cells, posing risks to infants and children.(5) In this particular study, even products that claimed to be free of the common plastic toxicant bisphenol-A (BPA) still tested positive for other estrogenic chemicals.
Plastic #3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC plastic can be rigid or flexible, and is commonly found in bags for bedding, shrink wrap, deli and meat wrap, plastic toys, table cloths and blister packs used to store medications.
PVC contains toxic chemicals including DEHP, a type of phthalate used as a plastics softener. Phthalates are one of the groups of "gender-bending" chemicals causing males of many species to become more female. These chemicals have disrupted the endocrine systems of wildlife, causing testicular cancer, genital deformations, low sperm counts and infertility in a number of species, including polar bears, deer, whales and otters, just to name a few.
Scientists believe phthalates are responsible for a similar pattern of adverse effects in humans as well. If your home contains soft, flexible plastic flooring, such as vinyl or those padded play-mat floors for kids (often used in day cares and kindergartens, too), there's a good chance it is also made from toxic PVC. PVC flooring has been linked to chronic diseases including allergies, asthma and autism.
Polyvinyl Chloride is perhaps most well known for its use in residential and commercial property construction applications. Different types of PVC are used for plumbing, insulation of electrical wires, and “vinyl” siding. In the construction business, PVC pipe is often referred to by the term “schedule 40” which indicates the thickness of the pipe relative to its length.
Three words or short phrases to describe the major benefits of PVC relative to other plastics and materials would be: Brittle, Rigid (although different PVC variants are actually designed to be very flexible), Strong
Plastic #4: Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Another plastic that is considered a low hazard, LDPE is used in bags for bread, newspapers, fresh produce, household garbage and frozen foods, as well as lining cardboard milk cartons and hot and cold beverage cups. While LDPE does not contain BPA, it may pose risks of leaching estrogenic chemicals, similar to HDPE.
LDPE is know to have high ductility but low tensile strength.
Plastic #5: Polypropylene (PP)
PP plastic is used to make containers for yogurt, deli foods, medications and takeout meals. While polypropylene is said to have a high heat tolerance making it unlikely to leach chemicals, at least one study found that PP plastic ware used for laboratory studies did leach at least two chemicals. (6)
Polypropylene is used in a variety of applications to include packaging for consumer products like listed above as well as plastic parts for the automotive industry, special devices like living hinges, and textiles. It is semi-transparent, has a low-friction surface, doesn’t react well with liquids, is easily repaired from damage and has good electrical resistance (i.e. it is a good electrical insulator). Perhaps most importantly, polypropylene is adaptable to a variety of manufacturing techniques which makes it one of the most commonly produced and highly demanded plastics on the market.
Two short phrases to describe the major benefits of Polypropylene relative to other plastics and materials would be: Unique Use For Living Hinges , Simple To Manufacture
Plastic #6: Polystyrene (PS)
Polystyrene is used widely in packaging under the trade name “styrofoam.” When not in foam form, it is also available as a naturally transparent solid commonly used for consumer products like cups, plates, bowls, take-out containers, meat trays, soft drink lids, coffee cup lids, or medical devices like test tubes or petri dishes. Polystyrene is known to leach styrene,(7) which can damage your nervous system and is linked to cancer, into your food. Temperature has been found to play a role in how much styrene leaches from polystyrene containers, which means using them for hot foods (like hot take-out in a plastic container with lid) and beverages (such as hot coffee in a polystyrene cup) may be worst of all.
Plastic #7: Other. (Most often Polylactic Acid or PLA)
This is a catch-all designation used to describe products made from other plastic resins not described above, or those made from a combination of plastics.
We are seeing more and more PLA, or Polylactic Acid, plastics on the market. PLA is unique in relation to the other plastics on this list in that it is derived from biomass rather than petroleum. Accordingly, it biodegrades much quicker than traditional plastic materials when in an industrial composting system with regulated heat, aeration, and microbes.
For the remaining #7s, it's difficult to know for sure what types of toxins may be in these plastics, but there's a good chance it often contains BPA or the new, equally concerning chemical on the block in the bisphenol class known as Bisphenol-S (BPS).
BPA and BPS are endocrine disrupters, which means they mimic or interfere with your body's hormones and "disrupts" your endocrine system. The glands of your endocrine system and the hormones they release are instrumental in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism, as well as sexual function and reproductive processes.
Some of the greatest concern surrounds early-life, in utero exposure to bisphenol compounds, which can lead to chromosomal errors in your developing fetus, causing spontaneous miscarriages and genetic damage. But evidence is also very strong showing these chemicals are influencing adults and children, too, and leading to decreased sperm quality, early puberty, stimulation of mammary gland development, disrupted reproductive cycles and ovarian dysfunction, cancer and heart disease, among numerous other health problems.
For instance, research has found that "higher BPA exposure is associated with general and central obesity in the general adult population of the United States,"(8) while another study found that BPA is associated not only with generalized and abdominal obesity but also with insulin resistance, which is an underlying factor in many chronic diseases.(9)
- 1 Green Plastics: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradable Plastics
- 2 io9.com
- 3 Water Research, Volume 42, Issue 3, February 2008, Pages 551–556
- 4 Environment International Volume 38, Issue 1, January 2012, Pages 45–53
- 5 Environmental Health Perspectives March 2, 2011 (Epub Ahead of Print)
- 6 Science. 2008 Nov 7;322(5903):917.
- 7 Journal of Environmental Sciences Volume 19, Issue 4, 2007, Pages 421–426
- 8 Environmental Research 2011 Aug;111(6):825-30.
- 9 The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2012 Feb;97(2):E223-7.
- 10 NOAA
- 11 How to Recognize the Plastics That are Hazardous to You. 2013 April.