Plastics are a large threat to the planet, as well as to us. Plastics are sorted into different categories dependant on their level of quality. It is important that we as a people are able to read, and comprehend these symbols as some are not easily recycled, or could cause large amounts of damage to our bodies.
First off, it’s good to familiarize yourself with what you’re looking for. The recycling symbol is a triangle made out of arrows. It should be located at the bottom of your plastic container, near the center. Inside the triangle you will find a number from 1 – 7 and some letters underneath it.On occasion the triangle will not be present and only the number will be embedded into your plastic.
Knowing where to look is, of course, useless if you don’t know what it means. The letters under each of the numbers explain what the plastic is made of. Number one plastics (PETE) are made of Polyethylene Terephthalate. This Plastic is commonly see through or “semi crystalline”. This is an easily recycled plastic with very few health hazards. There is some worry that PETE plastics leach an element known as antimony (Sb), but the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, after studying this plastic, stated that it was a minor - and safe amount of antimony released.
Plastics marked with the number two are high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastics.They are opaque (not see-through) and have a lacklustre appearance. HDPE plastics are used for things like shampoo bottles, yogurt cups, and margarine containers.These Plastics are harmless.
Plastic number three is known as “the poison plastic” or polyvinyl chloride (PVC or V). I have never actually seen this plastics symbol despite its popularity. This is because it is used in almost everything.Things like credit cards, cling wrap packaging, PVC flooring, piping, and children’s toys. This is beyond ridiculous, seeing as PVC is the most toxic plastic of them all in regards to both the environment and us. PVC is resistant to flame, oil, weathering, sunlight, and chemicals. It’s around 57% chlorine and relies heavily on oil companies. After decades, instead of decomposing, it will just granulate and shrink. It uses phthalates to “soften or plasticize PVC products such as flooring.” These phthalates have a nasty tendency to attach themselves to dust, which will either be breathed in, or gather on the floor (as dust so often does). “Laboratory studies in animals show that some of these chemicals (dioxins) are linked to cancer and kidney damage and may interfere with the reproductive system and its development.”
If you have ever even seen a child or spoken with a parent, you will have most likely noticed children tend to spend most of their time on the ground, or with something in their mouth, or on the ground with something in their mouth. They are getting a larger concentration of polyvinyl chloride toxins than anyone else.
Before we move on to the fourth plastic it should be noted that of the thirty-three million (and counting) tons of annual PVC production, less than 1% of it gets recycled.
Now onto plastic number four. This one is called “low-density polyethylene”.There is no real way you can avoid low-density polyethylene. If you get a bag at a grocery store, it’s there. The bags you put your produce in, also number four.Sandwich bags, frozen food bags, bread packaging, and that plastic wrap that you need to rip off of your brand new thing-a-ma-giz-tron are all number fours. LDPE isn’t dangerous to you (unless you stick your head in plastic bags) but it is dangerous to the planet. This plastic is normally tossed in the trash instead of the blue bin because most recycling companies, including Winnipeg’s cannot recycle LDPE plastics.
Hope is not lost however; plastic bags can be brought to several different stores to be recycled. Even more exciting, Harold Hatcher elementary school is collecting plastic bags to make into Frisbees!
That’s not all, a company known as Terracycle is extremely good at upcycling. They take in things that wouldn’t normally be recycled, such as Kool-Aid drink pouches, candy bar wrappers, or gum packages, and make jewellery, pencil cases and all sorts of cool things out of them. They even donate two cents per donation to a charity or school.
Number five plastics (polypropylene) are an interesting bunch. They don’t leech any dangerous chemicals into our food, and they can be dropped in your recycling bin.This may sound perfect, but there’s a chance that instead of being recycled, they get sent to Asia, and burned for energy. This means products like milk jugs, straws, syrup/ketchup bottles, and Tupperware containers that we expect to have recycled into things like bike racks, brooms, or ice scrapers will be burned, releasing the plastic toxins into the air.
“Preserve” is a company that has a program known as gimme five. They ask that you drop off your polypropylene (PP) plastics at one of their several drop-off locations… in the states. We have the opportunity here in Canada to mail them all of our number five plastics.They cannot yet afford to pay for shipping but are working to set up more retail stations in more communities.
Number six plastics – polystyrene or Styrofoam – are usually in the form of packing peanuts, foam cups, and CD cases.This is a bulky, lightweight plastic that is hard to recycle.Most recyclers won’t accept a PS product, and Winnipeg is no different. Aside from the environmental hazard, a known human carcinogen called benzene is used when making this product.
Onto our final plastic, we are forced to deal with another bad/worse situation. Number seven plastics are a mix of any or all the plastics that have been covered in this article. They cannot be easily recycled and most recycling companies just say no. Dr. Vreni Gurd states that number seven plastics contain Bisphenol A, which is a xenoestrogen. It’s a known endocrine disruptor, giving it the power to mess with the hormonal messages being sent through the body.BPA has been linked to uterine and breast cancer in women, and lowered testosterone levels in men. It’s even linked to an insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. The effects of this plastic are even more damaging in younger children.
As you may have noticed, when it comes to plastic there’s always a downside. If it’s easy to recycle, it’s bad for you. If it isn’t poisoning you, the environment is at stake. There are even some that are both bad for you and the environment, yet used to package food! It really goes to show you that the best plastic is no plastic, and we need to realise this soon or face the consequences.