Plastic containers are incredibly convenient and nearly impossible to give up entirely. But the chemicals in plastics can get into our food and drinks and affect our health and our environment. So, it makes sense to think about how to cut back on using plastic and find other kinds of containers. It also makes sense to think about the types of plastic you use, especially for food.
The recycling numbers in triangles on the bottom of bottles and other plastics can help you make the safest choices. The numbers tell you what type of plastic the product is. No matter what type of plastic it is, don’t heat plastics or let them heat up in the sun. Don’t use plastic in the microwave even if it says “microwave safe,” and don’t use plastic roasting bags in the oven. Never reuse them if they’re cracked or scratched. And always try to recycle any plastics you do use. Check with your local recycling office to see which plastics are accepted in your area.
Here’s the scoop on what those numbers mean:
Recycling symbol 1: OK to use, but don’t reuse. Recycling symbol 1 is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET bottles are thin and clear and include most bottles for water and soda pop, as well as some cooking oil, detergent, and cleaning product bottles. Over time, some chemicals may leach, especially if the plastic is heated or left in the sun, which is why you shouldn’t reuse them.
Recycling symbol 2: Okay to use. Recycling symbol 2 is high-density polyethylene (HDPE). These are the cloudier, thicker containers such as milk jugs, butter/margarine tubs, and some detergent and shampoo bottles.
Recycling symbol 3: Don’t use. Recycling symbol 3 is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is used for some plastic wraps and packaging, some squeeze bottles, and cooking oil, detergent, and window cleaner bottles, as well as vinyl shower curtains, mattress covers, and flooring. Don’t cook in these plastics, and try to minimize using number 3 plastics around any type of food. Use wax paper instead of plastic wrap, and use glass or ceramic containers to reheat food in the microwave.
Recycling symbol 4: Okay to use. Recycling symbol 4 is low-density polyethylene (LDPE). LDPE includes produce, grocery, garbage, and dry cleaning bags; some plastic wrap and food storage containers. Don’t store your produce in the bag, and don’t store your food in plastic.
Recycling symbol 5: Okay to use. Recycling symbol 5 is polypropylene (PP). PP is a cloudy or colored plastic used for food storage containers, plastic dishware, yogurt cups, ketchup and syrup bottles, medicine bottles, and straws.
Recycling symbol 6: Don’t use. Recycling symbol 6 is polystyrene. Polystyrene includes foam plates, cups, and bowls, as well as Styrofoam packing materials, trays, and egg cartons. Try to minimize using number 6 plastics around any type of food or drink.
Recycling symbol 7: Use only if you see the letters PLA or a leaf symbol on the container. Recycling symbol 7 is a catch-all category that includes mixes of plastics 1 through 6 and all other plastics not in the other categories, including water cooler jugs, clear plastic utensils, compact discs, computer cases, and plastics that contain BPA (bisphenal A). BPA is a synthetic weak estrogen-like chemical used in the production of plastics that may increase the risk of abnormal breast cell growth, including breast cancer.
PLA (polymer polylactide) is a plastic made from plants (usually corn or sugarcane) that is also labeled with a 7. PLA plastics don’t contain BPA; no safety concerns have been raised about using PLA plastic with food. Right now, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a PLA no. 7 plastic and a BPA-containing no. 7 plastic. Some PLA plastics may also say “PLA” near the recycling symbol. Others may have a leaf symbol near the recycling symbol.
To clear up any confusion, the manufacturers of PLA plastic are working with the American Society for Testing and Materials International, a global group that develops standards, to create a new recycling numbering system that would give PLA plastic its own number.
Do not cook food in no. 7 plastics that aren’t PLA, and try to minimize using non-PLA no. 7 plastics around any type of food.
To cut down on using plastics, try to bring your own reusable shopping bags to the store, bring your own mug to the coffee shop, look for paper egg cartons, carry a glass, steel, or ceramic water bottle filled with tap water, and keep a spare set of silverware in your desk. If you can’t get your food fresh, look for food in glass containers. Avoid plastic cookware and utensils. Avoid Teflon-coated cookware, and don’t apply high heat to nonstick pots and pans. It’s best to cook in stainless steel, glass, ceramic, cast iron, and enamel-covered metals. Reduce, reuse, and recycle!
UPDATE: On Oct. 24, 2011, a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that BPA also seems to affect brain development in the womb. Pregnant women with high levels of BPA in their urine were more likely to have daughters who showed signs of hyperactivity, anxiety, and depression. The symptoms were seen in girls as young as 3. It’s not clear why boys aren’t affected in the same way. What is clear is that BPA should be avoided – especially if you’re pregnant.