Meet your Plastic Plate (a guide to the safe use of plastic)
Colorful cups, plates, knives, forks, and spoons made of plastic are produced every year by the millions of tons. Without this uncomplicated table setting, almost any party at work, a picnic, and sometimes even a coffee break at business meetings is not complete. The use of such utensils is convenient and saves a lot of time – that’s probably the only advantage of disposable tableware. The minuses are much bigger.
Most disposable plastic does not decompose, it cannot be burned, and, being thrown out on the street, it turns the city into a trash. But that is not all. Plastic can harm the body of its consumer. Of course, the manufacturers do not stress the existing danger, but this does not mean that their products are harmless.
Let’s take a closer look at the labels:
The seven types of plastic include:
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
- High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
- Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polystyrene or Styrofoam (PS)
- Miscellaneous plastics (includes: polycarbonate, polylactide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fiberglass, and nylon)
PET or PETE (or number 1)
This is a clear polyethylene terephthalate 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. This kind of plastic is only intended for SINGLE USE and is difficult to decontaminate, meaning that repeated use can be harmful. The more you use it, the higher is the risk of bacteria. Also, the metals and chemicals released by this material may tamper with our body’s hormonal balance.
HDP or HDPE (or number 2)
This is a polyethylene (HDPE) that is opaque in color. This includes the slightly stronger plastics used for milk jugs, detergent bottles, oil buttles, toys, toiletry bottles, etc. This is a safe plastic with a low risk of bacteria growth. Experts claim that this is the safest kind of plastic that you can choose when buying bottled water, because it barely releases any chemicals.
PVC or 3V (or 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, teething rings, toys, 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.
PVC is the most dangerous plasticware. Food containers and sport bottles are sometimes made from this substance. It actively releases vinyl chloride, a substance that can cause cancer.
LDPE (or number 4)
This low density polyethylene (LDPE) is considered safe, but not accepted by recycling programs. It includes bread bags and grocery bags.
Although this type of plastic does not release chemicals into the water, you are unlikely to see this label on your water bottle, because the LDPE material is not used in its production. Rather, you would find it in food packaging, in the case of which you should still try to avoid it. LDPE may still release highly dangerous chemicals in the foods you eat.
PP (or number 5)
This is white-colored or semi-transparent type of plastic. This kind of material is tough, lightweight, and heat-resistant. This material won’t melt easily if heated. Overall, it is a rather safe type of plastic, and it can also block out moisture, grease, and chemicals. Made of polypropylene, this is a safe plastic and is readily accepted by recycling programs. Items being made from this plastic include ketchup bottles, syrup bottles, medicine containers, and yogurt cups.
Unlike polystyrene, polypropylene dishes labeled with PP do not change their properties even when heated to +150 C, but are easily amenable to chemical attack, releasing formaldehyde and phenol, which are also dangerous to health. Therefore, drinking alcohol from such dishes is not worth it. Polypropylene containers are not suitable for the storage of fatty substances, for example, butter or oil, since polypropylene is destroyed during contact with fats and formaldehydes and phenols are released.
PS (or number 6)
This is polystyrene, or Styrofoam, a type of inexpensive and lightweight plastic that is used for a range of products. 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 a harmful breakdown product called styrene — especially when heated — and should be avoided whenever possible.
This kind of packaging is intended only for cold foods. When hot tea or coffee is poured into such a container, the plastic heats up and begins to release styrene. The same thing happens during heating in the microwave. Of course, one-time ingestion of styrene in the body will not bring harm, but if you constantly buy lunch in such packaging and heat it in a microwave oven, this dangerous substance accumulates in the body. Dysfunction of the kidneys and liver are possible consequences.
(number 7 ) or non-labeled
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 may 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 help it. When a plastic says that it is microwavable, it just means it won’t melt in your microwave. It doesn’t mean it won’t release harmful chemicals into your food.
Recycling Codes for Plastic
Understanding the different types of plastic can help consumers like us make more informed decisions related to our health and the environment. It’s important to become familiar with an item’s SPI (Society of the Plastics Industry) code, which is also known as a resin identification number and is used to classify the different types of plastic. This information will help you sort plastic materials more effectively for recycling.
#1 – PETE or PET – recyclable
#2 – HDPE – recyclable
#3 – PVC – recyclable, but not by all recyclers
#4 – LDPE – recyclable, but not by all recyclers
#5 – PP – not recyclable
#6 – PS – not recyclable
#7 – Other plastics like nylon and styrene – not recyclable
Tons and tons of used non-recyclable plastic is still lying somewhere and has not yet been processed, because plastic decomposition can take from 50 to 300+ years. That is to say, you and I will leave our bodies, our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will leave their bodies, and the plastic from our yesterday’s picnic will still litter the environment.
Paper packages are made from natural raw materials and are easy disposable. When heated, no harmful substances are released.
Paper cups are made from thin cardboard that can be laminated on one or both sides. Lamination of the outer layer prevents the cup from soaking. Thanks to modern technology, the edges of paper cups are glued without glue. Compared with plastic and polystyrene cups, paper is a safe material for microwave ovens.
To stay healthy:
- Disposable tableware should be disposable. Never use disposable utensils several times. After all, ones used it is impossible to clean it up to hygienic standards, and microscopic damage and cracks will further enhance the release of harmful substances.
- Plastic ware is relatively harmless when used strictly for its intended purpose. So, yogurt packaging does not react with milk fat and acids, but with other products it can. However, disposable cups can be dangerous if you drink soda, tea or sour juices from them. These fluids cause the release of harmful substances.
- Do not store products in plastic not suitable for it and especially avoid heating them in the microwave. For example, plastic containers from ice cream are safe in the freezer, but they can be deformed under the influence of high temperatures, beginning to decompose and release hazardous substances. In some types of plastic the destruction occurs under the action of oxygen, sunlight, and room temperature.
TODAY’S TIP: Plastics are not only used for food and drink products. We also find them in everyday items such as water pipes, signs, clothing, furniture, shower curtains, textiles, stationery, insulation, diapers, medical equipment, etc, in which they may not directly affect our health. Nonetheless, we should always be knowledgeable about the materials and chemicals included in the products we buy, taking extra care on the ones that contain food and drinks.