Plastics by the Numbers by Heather Ramsey

It seems that nearly everything these days has plastic components: cleaning products and drinks come in plastic bottles, toys are either made from it or come packaged in it, and we store our food with plastic wrap and Tupperware. And, though we tend to take it for granted that these items are safe, we have recently been inundated with stories of dangerous chemical contaminants, in products from from baby bottles to toys.

In addition to the problems associated with the chemicals in plastics, they are also made using petroleum and, though recyclable, do not biodegrade when thrown away. Plastic, unlike aluminum, cannot be recycled over and over again to recreate similar quality products - each time you recycle it, a lower-quality plastic will be created. Thus, while it is still important to recycle it, the fact that it will eventually end up in a landfill, where it will take hundreds of years to degrade, means that reducing our use and reusing plastic products are key.

There are a number of different types of plastic, generally labeled for recycling as numbers 1 through 7. Here in Lakewood, we are fortunate to be able to recycle all of these types, but many communities accept only #1 and #2. In terms of safety, the best ones are #2, 4, and 5, which are generally used for shampoo bottles, sandwich bags, and yogurt tubs, respectively. Plastic labelled #1, often used to make water (and other beverage) bottle, is also safe, but for a single use only. These bottles have a porous surface that allows potentially dangerous bacteria growth and is hard to clean.

One way to cut down on your use of plastic is to use fewer plastic sandwich bags. Most baggies are made of #4 plastic, which is generally considered safe plastic, so you can wash and reuse them without too much worry. It is recommended, however, that you dispose of bags that have held meats or cheeses, as these may promote a buildup of bacteria, and never put hot or warm food into a plastic bag. Rinsing them may sound like a pain, but if you use plastic bags to tote simple snacks, it is not difficult and can save you money. You can also, of course, store food in other ways, like sturdier washable containers or, for sandwiches, the Wrap-N-Mat (a washable sandwich wrap that doubles as a placemat, available at

If you use plastic wrap, try to find some made of plastics other than #3, as this type of plastic contains phtalates and the manufacturing process emits dioxin (a carcinogen and hormone disruptor). In landfills, these chemicals leach into the ground and water. When covering food, try to keep it from touching the plastic, and, if heating, poke holes or leave an opening for steam to escape. Try not to use plastic containers in the microwave, since Microwave-Safe labels guarantee only that the container will not melt or break during heating, not that chemicals will not leach into food in the process.

Many companies are manufacturing plastics made from biodegradable materials, like corn or potato starch. Products from disposable cutlery and plates to water bottles to sandwich and garbage bags are now available in corn-based plastic. Cutlery is available at Treecycle (, bags from Bio Bag (, and water bottles from New Wave Enviro (, among others. Also, as with paper products, there are many plastic items available made from recycled materials. Garbage bags, for example, are available from a number of retailers and are produced by well-known companies, like Seventh Generation.

Along with #3, #6 and #7 are also considered the worst plastics. Generally used for takeout containers, #6 may leach a possible carcinogen into food, especially if heated. In the news recently, #7 has been reported as containing the dangerous chemical bisphenol A. So, when shopping for something with a plastic component, check for the recycling symbol on the bottom and, if possible, choose those with a 1, 2, 4, or 5, and steer clear of the others.

Read More on Conservation Corner
Volume 5, Issue 4, Posted 6:24 AM, 02.28.2009