Types of Plastic

After reading Beth Terry’s book, Plastic-Free, I was inspired to consider the different types of plastics and varying degrees of harm they present.

The Society of the Plastic Industry (SPI) set up the SPI Resin Identification Coding (RIC) System in 1988 to classify the type of resin plastic products are made from. Since 2008, the RIC has been administered by ASTM International, but remains as the 1-7 coding system as below.

Single use drink bottles, peanut butter jars, polyester products
Milk and shampoo bottles, plastic bags, cereal box liners and other heavy opaque plastics
Pipes, cling wrap, soft toys
Newspaper film, bread packaging, squeeze bottles, rubbish bags
Yoghurt and margarine tubs, bottle caps, reusable storage containers
Plastic cutlery, cups and plates, CD and DVD cases, foamed PS (styrofoam)
All other plastics including many drink bottles and bioplastics

The signs can be somewhat misleading for consumers, due to the use of the universal recycling symbol of chasing arrows. While it is common practice to assume that the sympol indicates the product’s recyclability, this is not necessarily the case. 

As a general rule, plastics with SPI codes #3, #6 and #7 pose the most danger, closely followed by #1. And while #2, #4 and #5 are commonly referred to as ‘safer plastics’ a 2008 study found chemicals leaching from #5 plastics. So what does this mean for us? While the RIC system provides us with a general indication of the safety levels of our plastics, the chance of chemicals being present in the plastic, Bisphenol-A (BPA) or otherwise, does not have a binary answer. Especially as chemicals are often added to the plastic during the manufacturing process, our ability to measure ‘safe levels’ are considerably hindered.

It’s also interesting to note that BPA-Free isn’t a great label to go by. Many chemicals labelled as BPA-Free alternatives are yet to be thoroughly tested and in some cases have been found to pose just as much or more of a threat than we know BPA to show now. Further, some studies have gone on to demonstrate higher levels of ‘estrogenic activity’ and hormone disruption in BPA alternatives! While it’s great to know that there is no BPA in your plastic product, it in no way guarantees the safety and lack of chemicals in the plastic. At present, we have no control over this, and aren’t able to differentiate dangerous from safe – surely that’s unacceptable?! As Beth Terry wrote:

It’s not enough for us to know what’s not in a product; as citizens, we should have a right to know what is in it.

In my opinion, the RIC system is a great place to start from in the plastic classification and recycling field, but doesn’t come with the safety and assurance consumers deserve. As such, we have the option to divert to glass, metal or other non-plastic alternatives, but there are plenty of issues with that to! For many, they don’t offer the same levels of convenience as their plastic counterparts – they’re harder to find and heavier to bring around and in some cases barely exist! But if it’s safety you’re seeking, then as far as we know, it’s a big tick in that box.

Ultimately it’s up to the consumer – you – to decide what path you’ll take, but I think that in any case, the companies manufacturing the products we buy should really be fairly representing the safety of their plastic, just like they are made to accurately label every other part of that product they make.

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