More and more, we hear the calls all the time to reuse, to recycle, and they seem all the more urgent when it comes to plastics.
Those of us with young children are familiar with some of the school projects to recycle plastics, mainly to convert them into planters and handicrafts like Christmas lanterns.
People also sometimes reuse those plastic bottles for water and other beverages, looking at the bottom of the bottle for a number, with a common conception that the number indicates how many times you can reuse the bottle. The number is enclosed in a “chasing arrows code,” referring to the arrow symbols that make a triangle. But I was shocked to learn only recently, from a chemist friend, that the numbers tell you what kind of plastic is being used, not the number of times you can refill the bottle for drinking water.
I looked up several sources for explanations of the numbers and the best one was from www.plasticfreebottles.com. Here are the explanations:
The number “1” refers to PET or polyethylene terephthalate, the most common material for plastic bottles used for water and beverages. It turns out PET bottles were designed for single-use only and yet are the most commonly manufactured plastic for beverages so, generally speaking, you can’t reuse the plastic bottles for anything you intend to drink. Please, that includes your pets.
The other numbers used for recycling code are for other types of plastics used for consumer products. Those with the numbers 3, 4, and 5 are classified as “appears to be safe.”
The plastic medicine containers are usually polypropylene (number 5), which is considered safe. But if you do reuse for other medicines, as my fellow senior citizens love to do, make sure to wash out thoroughly and relabel.
Now, on to particularly problematic plastics. The number 6 is used for polystyrene, a possible human carcinogen, and is sometimes used for plastic cutlery so watch out. A number 7 refers to other plastics including polycarbonates, which are used for baby bottles, water cooler bottles—and should be avoided because they contain bisphenol A, which can cause chromosomal damage. Many children’s bottles now carry a label “bisophenol-free.”
Most alarming is polyvinyl chloride or PVC, which has the number 3 and is nicknamed the poison plastic, found in many consumer products from blister packs that kids love to “pop” to garden hoses.
The recycling codes are there as guides for places where recycling is practiced, so they can be sorted out. PVC, for example, is produced in such large volumes that without recycling, we would be deluged by this toxic product.
In countries like the Philippines, very little recycling is being done so the codes are of limited use. The sometimes tacky planters and Christmas lanterns, with the soft drink brand still readable, can help raise environmental awareness. But in the long run, we need recycling facilities to process all kinds of plastics, in particular, the plastics used for the sachets for food, cosmetics, toothpaste, and other common consumer items. Even if they “appear to be safe,” the huge amounts used for our tingi sachet economy end up clogging our waterways.
Note that the problem is not just the container—but those plastic rings used in packaging the bottles can reach our seas and cause choking and death in marine animals (including seabirds).
Back to land. For any kind of plastic used for food or beverages, do be aware that leaving the container in a hot place (for example, your car in the parking lot) can mean toxins leach out from the plastic into the beverage. If you or other friends have been drinking from the same bottle, you may have created an incubator for bacteria. (No reports yet of the fungi cordyceps, the focus of the sci-fi series “The Last of Us” on HBO.)
The long-term solution is to avoid using plastic bottles when you can. Instead, use glass, porcelain, or stainless steel containers. Make it a habit to bring these alternative containers—for both food and beverages, whenever you eat out, for take-out from the restaurant.