What Do The Numbers on Plastic Containers Mean?

man putting a plastic bottle into a green recycling bin

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Have you noticed the numbers on the bottoms or sides of plastic containers, and wondered what they mean? A small number is placed on all plastic containers, usually transparent in color and surrounded by three small arrows, indicating that they are recyclable.

RIC numbers on plastic containers

These numbers are called Resin Identification Codes (RIC), and range from one to seven. The numbers indicate the kind of plastic that they are, which makes recycling much simpler for you and your community.

The numbers on plastic containers also can tell you what the plastic is made from, and what effects it has on human health and the environment.

Is Plastic Really Recyclable?

In spite of nationwide recycling efforts, we currently recycle only a measly five percent of all the plastics we produce. And more and more cities are shutting down their plastic recycling programs because they are not cost effective! That’s because plastic can’t really be recycled.

The word recycling means taking a material, melting it down, and turning it back into itself over and over. This can be done with glass and metal, both of which can be remelted and remade into jars or cans forever. On the other hand, some materials degrade over time, and can only be recycled maybe once or twice until the material breaks down too much, and can no longer be reformed into what it once was.

This is called downcycling.

Plastic is similar to paper in that it can only be downcycled. Plastic water and soda bottles, for example, are not usually turned back into bottles. Instead, the plastic is broken down and used for something more basic like fleece fabric or plastic lumber. This means that virgin plastic made from fossil fuels is still required for the manufacture of new plastic bottles.

One of the hazards of plastic is that it cannot biodegrade, ever. Instead, plastic photodegrades, and this is very concerning. When exposed to heat and light, plastic particles shred and break down into bits so small that they become microscopic. Scientists and environmentalists are very concerned about the impact of these microplastics on the environment, especially the harmful role they play in human health and the ocean ecosystem.

What Plastic ID Codes Mean

#1 – PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)

PET is used for water and soft drink bottles, mouthwash bottles, containers for condiments like nut butters and ketchup, and TV dinner trays. It is usually downcycled into carpet fibers, fleece jackets, and sometimes new containers.

PET is considered safe, but evidence shows it can actually leach the toxic metal antimony, which is used during its manufacture. One study looked at 63 brands of bottled water produced in Europe and Canada and found concentrations of antimony that were more than 100 times the typical level found in clean groundwater (2 parts per trillion).

The study also found that the longer a PET bottle sits on the shelf—in a grocery store or in your pantry—the greater the amount of antimony present. It is also thought that the amount of antimony leaching from these PET bottles increases the more they are exposed to sunlight and heat.

Brominated compounds have also been found to leach into PET bottles. Bromine displaces iodine in the body, and is a central nervous system depressant. It can accumulate over time, and trigger health problems.

#2 – HDPE (high-density polyethylene)

HDPE is used in butter tubs, milk jugs, juice, household cleaner and shampoo bottles, as well as cereal box liners and grocery bags. It is usually downcycled into decking, fencing, and plastic flower pots.

HDPE is often considered a low-toxin plastic, but like almost all plastics, it has been found to release estrogenic chemicals. In one study, 95 percent of all plastic products tested were positive for estrogenic activity.

This means they can disrupt your hormones and even alter the development of your cells, which puts infants and children at even greater risk. In this particular study, even HDPE products that were free of bisphenol-A (BPA) still tested positive for other estrogenic chemicals.

#3 – PVC (polyvinyl chloride)

PVC is used in plastic cooking oil bottles, deli and meat wrappers, shrink wrap, sandwich baggies, and plastic wrap. It is also found in plastic toys, lunch boxes, table cloths and blister packs used to hold medications. And it is commonly used to make jewelry and faux-leather purses, shoes and jackets. It is usually downcycled into pipe, gutters, and packaging.

PVC contains numerous toxic chemicals including lead and DEHP, a type of phthalate used as a plastics softener. As if the lead weren’t bad enough, phthalates are considered “gender-bending” chemicals which cause the males of many species to become more female. These chemicals disrupt 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, otters, and frogs, among others.

Scientists believe phthalates cause similar harmful effects in humans. If your home has flexible vinyl flooring, a plastic shower curtain, or those padded playmat floors for kids (often used in day cares and kindergartens, too), there’s a good chance it is made from PVC. PVC flooring has also been linked to chronic diseases like allergies, asthma and autism.

PVC is one of the worst health and environmental offenders.

#4 – LDPE (low-density polyethylene)

LDPE is considered to be low-toxin plastic and it is used in bread bags, produce bags, squeezable bottles as well as coated paper milk cartons and hot/cold beverage cups. It is usually downcycled into shipping envelopes, trash bags, and compost bins.

While LDPE does not contain BPA, it can leach estrogenic chemicals, much like HDPE.

#5 – PP (polypropylene)

Polypropylene is used in straws, yogurt containers, and syrup, ketchup, and medicine bottles. It is usually downcycled into ice scrapers, brooms, brushes, rakes, storage bins, shipping pallets, and trays.

While polypropylene is considered a low-toxin plastic that is tolerant of heat, at least one study found that polypropylene plasticware used for laboratory studies did leach at least two chemicals.

#6 – PS (polystyrene)

Polystyrene is also known colloquially as “Styrofoam,” and is used in egg cartons, disposable plates, cups and bowls, take-out containers, coffee cups, meat trays, packing materials, and more. It is usually downcycled into light switch and outlet plates, packaging, and trays.

When heated, polystyrene can release styrene, a suspected nerve toxin and carcinogen. Heating styrofoam or using it for hot foods and beverages makes it leach toxins even more, so try to avoid hot food and drinks in polystyrene containers, and definitely don’t use them in the microwave!

#7 – Other

#7 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. While there are many different types of #7 plastics, the most common include 5-gallon-size water bottles, baby bottles and other polycarbonate plastics. These plastics are often downcycled into plastic lumber.

It’s difficult to know for sure what types of toxins may be in #7 plastics since they vary so much, but there’s a very good chance that if they are polycarbonates, they contain bisphenol-A (BPA), or the equally concerning chemical created to replace BPA, known as Bisphenol-S (BPS).

BPA and BPS are both endocrine disrupters that interfere with your body’s hormones, affecting your mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism, sexual function and ability to reproduce. Over 6 billion pounds of BPA are produced each year, so it is no wonder that the CDC found that 93% of Americans over the age of 6 have BPA in their urine and bloodstream!

Some of the greatest concern surrounds exposure to BPA and BPS during pregnancy, which can lead to chromosomal errors, spontaneous miscarriages and genetic damage. But evidence is also very strong that these chemicals are harming adults and children, too, causing decreased sperm quality, early puberty, disrupted reproductive cycles and ovarian dysfunction, cancer, and heart disease.

Research has found that “higher BPA exposure is associated with general and central obesity in the general adult population of the United States.” Another study found that BPA is associated not only with obesity, but also with insulin resistance, which is an underlying factor in many chronic diseases.

Hidden Sources of Plastic Toxins

Many of us know by now to look for “BPA-free” bottles and containers. (If you didn’t know that, now you do!) But, plastic is everywhere, so toxins can be found in the places you might not know about, like:

Plastic Containers Can Harm Your Health

One of the best things you can do for your health, especially if you are wrestling with a chronic condition, is to eliminate as much plastic from your life as possible.

Many doctors and scientists have valid concerns about consuming food and beverages in plastic containers. Ample evidence suggests that harmful chemicals like BPA, BPS, phthalates, xenoestrogens, dioxins, mercury, lead and antimony can leach from plastic containers into our food and cause health problems—especially when heated by microwave ovens, hot water or the sun.

These toxic chemicals—found in the majority of plastic, PVC and vinyl items made today—are endocrine disrupters that interfere with your body’s hormones, which has been linked to obesity, enlarged male breasts, earlier puberty in girls, and increased incidence of breast, prostate and other cancers.

To reduce your exposure to these toxins, avoid reheating food in plastic containers in the microwave, and use a plate, storage container or beeswax cover instead of covering food with plastic wrap. Don’t buy products like TV dinners and microwave popcorn. Avoid consuming food or beverages that have been heated in plastic containers, or left in a hot car.

The Good Side of Plastic

There are some good uses for plastic. While single-use plastic like product packaging and shopping bags needs to be phased out, plastic is a tremendous asset to the medical community for things like syringes and IV tubing. It is durable, so for things like playground equipment, benches or computers, plastic can be a much longer-lasting choice than materials like wood or metal. It is also lightweight, meaning goods can be shipped farther using less fuel during transport.

Ultimately we all need to decrease our reliance on plastic to lessen its impact on the environment, and transition to reusable goods and plant-based plastics as much as possible. Lastly, it’s important to be aware that, even though you are recycling your empty detergent bottles, they are not as recyclable as you think.

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