Plastic: What do the numbers on plastics mean?

Number 1: This is a clear polyethylene terephtalate or PET. This plastic is used for water bottles and soda bottles and is generally safe. However, it’s made with a porous surface that traps bacteria, so it’s not a good idea to reuse these bottles once they are empty.

Number 2: This is a polyethylene (HDPE) that is opaque in color. This includes the slightly stronger plastics used for milk jugs, detergent bottles, toiletry bottles, etc. This is a safe plastic with a low risk of bacteria growth.

Number 3: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is not a safe plastic for food and drinks. You should not cook near this plastic which is used for food wrap, plumbing pipes and bottles for cooking oil. There are softening chemicals used in the plastic that can interfere with your hormonal development if eaten or absorbed. The dangers of this plastic are increased when the plastic is placed in the dishwasher or microwave because the heat from those machines can release highly toxic dioxins.

Number 4: This low density polyethylene (LDPE) is considered safe, but not accepted by recycling programs. It includes bread bags and grocery bags.

Number 5: Made of polypropylene, this is a safe plastic and is readily being accepted by recycling programs. Items being made from this plastic include ketchup bottles, syrup bottles, medicine containers and yogurt cups.

Number 6: This is polystyrene, or Styrofoam. It’s mostly used in making disposable containers and packaging as well as Styrofoam plates and cups. There is increasing evidence that this material releases harmful breakdown products called styrene, especially when it’s heated, and should be avoided whenever possible.

Number 7: This category is for everything that didn’t fit into another category. This includes iPods, computer cases, baby bottles or food storage containers. All these plastics were made after 1987 and some even include the very harmful BPA, which can cause neural and behavior problems in children. Make sure your baby bottles are safe. Since you do not know what could be in the number 7 plastic, it’s advised to avoid it altogether.

Remember, number 2, 4 and 5 are safer plastics. Number 1 is also safe, but should not be reused. Numbers 6 and 7 should not be used if you can avoid it. When a plastic says that it is microwavable, remember that it just means it won’t melt in your microwave. It doesn’t mean it won’t release harmful chemicals into your food.

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