How Many Types of Plastics Are There, and Which Are Safe to Use?

Plastic is everywhere around us, from our tools to our food packaging. Unfortunately, it is one of the biggest pollutants on the planet, but its effects don’t refrain only from the environment. Some chemicals found in plastic can be dangerous to us as well, but some are more damaging than others. Here are the most popular types of plastics and how they impact our health.

How Are Different Types of Plastics Categorized?

Some people try to avoid plastic as much as possible, while others don’t know that much about it. The first step towards a healthier life both for yourself and the environment is to become familiar with all types of plastics.

You can find seven different types of plastics on the market. Each category is described using a number from 1 to 7, and you should find it on the packaging of any plastic object. Look for it on the labels on the bottles, on the packaging of plastic medical devices, or it can even be engraved directly on the object.

These numbers work as some sort of identification code for each type of plastic used to make the respective object. By looking up the specific number, you can find information about the chemicals found in that plastic. Some of them are highly toxic, while others are not so bad for our health and the environment.

Types of Plastics

By knowing the main characteristics of each category, you will know how to recycle better. Also, you can choose those types that are less toxic and reduce the risks you are exposing yourself to. Some of these categories might be more widespread, but you can always get wise in your choice of plastics.

Type 1 – PET

This abbreviation comes from polyethylene terephthalate, and it represents that clear type of plastic used for bottles, beverage or food containers. Even if it’s not so widely known, the same material is present in cleaning containers that are everywhere around households.

Since they contain our food and drinks, they are pretty safe for us. You should keep them away from fire, since burning them can release highly toxic fumes into the air. However, they are disposable, so don’t reuse them. These plastics are porous, and they might allow bacteria to pass through.

Flattened plastic bottle thrown on the ground, types of plastics

Type 2 – HDPE

HDPE means high-density polyethylene and is probably one of the most eco-friendly types of plastics. You can tell it apart by looking at its opaque density and can find it in milk and juice containers, butter boxes, or in detergent and cleaning products. Recycling facilities are fond of this type of plastic, so you will always find a place to dispose of them safely.

Type 3 – PVC

Polyvinyl chloride is widespread in pipes, inflatable products, plastic curtains, wraps, or even cooking oil recipients. Once it comes into contact with a source of heat, PVC might start leaking toxic chemicals. They contain phthalates, which can lead to a series of health issues. Also, it’s not so easily recyclable.

Type 4 – LDPE

Low-density polyethylene is one of those types of plastics used for the bags at the grocery stores. However, it’s also a common food wrap, and you can make bottles out of it. While it’s somehow safe for humans, it’s really difficult to recycle it. Therefore, instead of bringing it to a recycling facility, reuse the bags and bottles as often as possible.

Type 5 – PP

Polypropylene is a common material found in medicine bottles or ketchup and yogurt recipients. However, you might recognize it for being that plastic you can put in the microwave. It is pretty resistant and won’t degrade when exposed to heat. However, be careful. It’s still better to take the food out and heat it in a different container, as some chemicals might leak.

Apart from this, the plastic is safe. It’s not toxic for your health, and the good news is you can easily recycle it.

Type 6 – Polystyrene

If you haven’t heard the term polystyrene, then you most definitely know of Styrofoam. This is one of the most common types of plastics for packaging, but it’s also a widespread method to store and transport food. However, if you thought it’s safe, you’ll have to think again.

If you heat it, it will start leaking extremely dangerous substances. Recycling facilities usually don’t accept it, since it is incredibly hard to recycle, and throwing it away is even worse. It takes several hundreds of years for one single polystyrene piece to decompose, so there’s one more thing left. Avoid these types of plastics, and you’ll avoid a lot of damage.

Type 7 – All the Others

This is the broadest category, as it includes all the other types of plastics that don’t fit a definite group. Bioplastics, for instance, is one good example, as well as polycarbonate. Therefore, things are getting a little risky here. It’s hard to tell what these plastics contain, so we cannot know how harmful they are.

For instance, polycarbonate contains BPA, which is extremely toxic, but other plastics remain more mysterious. From the objects that also fit the category, there are baby bottles, medical and sports equipment, but also some computer parts. Getting rid of them might be difficult since they are hard to recycle, but it’s better to avoid them, especially if you know they have BPA.

One Short Summary

If you want to keep in mind what types of plastics you should and should not use, here’s a summary. Types 2, 4, and 5 are pretty safe, so you shouldn’t worry about them. The other ones might be dangerous if they are handled improperly. Make sure you avoid them as much as possible around food, and never heat them. The first type is the safest of all the unsafe ones, but you should still be careful.

Conclusion

Knowing all your types of plastics is essential if you want to lead a green life. Since some are more dangerous than others, you should know which one to choose and how to handle them. By knowing everything about all types of plastics, you can recycle them better, know how to protect the environment, and also stay safe.

Image sources: 1, 2.

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William E. Eubanks
 

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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