Monday, May 12, 2008

Plastics By the Numbers

So our heart is definitely in the right place. We want to produce the least amount of waste possible, and we want to recycle anything we can. Agreed? Good.

However, being a responsible consumer goes hand in hand with being an educated one. As I began to investigate the whole #7 plastics debate, I realized two facts:

1. It was going to be very difficult to find a place to recycle my polycarbonate Nalgene water bottles because most curbside recycling programs don't take #7. This information led me to a second, more significant conclusion....

2. I didn't know enough about plastic products, their potential health hazards, or how to recycle them all properly.

So (and forgive me if I suggest that you are like me) I decided that my well-intentioned but semi-misguided self had a bit of reading to do. Here is what I discovered:

Each plastic product is assigned a recycling code, and this number is imprinted on the bottom of the product. These numbers represent the type of plastic used and where and how the product can be recycled - rules vary depending on where you live.

Check with your local recycling center or use Earth 911's recycling locator to see which codes are accepted for recycling in your area. If you find that you are purchasing products that can not be easily recycled or may be potentially hazardous, make the effort to purchase alternative products.

Here is a quick, easy guide to what each of those numbers actually means. Those in bold are potentially hazardous and should be avoided:

#1 & #2 - Most water, soda, juice, milk, and shampoo and soap bottles are made with PET or HDPE plastics. They are widely recyclable and safe as long as they are not reused.

#3 - Vinyl or PVC - Potentially hazardous - they can leach plasticizers and lead. They are also not recyclable.

#4 & #5 - Safe and recyclable - many food storage containers and plastic wraps are made from these two types of plastic.

#6 - Polystyrene - more commonly known by the brand name, Styrofoam. While polystyrene is technically recyclable, it is difficult to recycle and due to its light weight many curbside recycling programs do not accept it. Polystyrene is also potentially hazardous, as it can leach styrene, a known carcinogen.

#7 - PC/PA #7 is the catch-all for the types of plastic that do not fall into the previous 6 categories. Products in this category range from polycarbonate (PC), which is non-biodegradable and potentially hazardous, to the safe and compostable polylactide(PA), which is made from plant materials like corn, and used to produce products like plates, bags, and bottles.