7 Different Types of Plastic and Which Are Most Toxic
Unknown by many, not all plastic is created equal — there are significant differences in the manufacturing processes and components that make up the seven main types of plastics. In fact, these differences are so pronounced that they determine whether or not you may be exposing yourself to toxic chemicals.
Rather than risk your health by consuming products from unsafe plastic containers and bottles, take a moment to review the list below and make sure that you’re practicing safe habits.
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How to Check the Type of Plastic
First things first — to check on the type of plastic container you are considering, simply look for the triangular recycling label and number, which is usually printed on the outside of the bottom of the container or bottle. The number and letters that you will find indicate the type of plastic used, and therefore, reveal the types of toxic chemicals that may be present, as well as the overall relative safety of that product.
Here are the seven most common forms of plastic:
1. PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
PET is among the most commonly used plastics in consumer products, and constitutes most water and soda bottles, and some types of packaging. PET is intended for single use applications, as repeated use increases the risks of chemicals, heavy metal, and carcinogens leaching into the contents and bacterial growth within the bottle. Taken as a whole, PET bottles are a relatively safe type of plastic, but they should never be used more than once, and better options are available for some products.
2. HDP or HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)
Stiff plastics that are used to form detergent bottles, oil bottles, milk jugs, as well as some plastic bags and toys are composed of HDPE. This type of plastic is considered to be one of the safest forms of plastic, as it does not leach any chemicals into its contents. Another benefit of HDPE is that it is relatively simple and very inexpensive to recycle for repeated use. Due to its resistance to breaking down at extreme temperatures, the lack of leaching chemicals, and its value for secondary use, most experts recommend this type of plastic above others.
3. PVC or 3V (Polyvinyl Chloride)
PVC has been colloquially dubbed the “poison plastic” due to the numerous toxins it contains that may leach from a container over repeated use, which may cause hormonal problems. Another downside of this type of plastic is that it cannot be recycled, but only repurposed for other PVC products. The plastic is soft and flexible and often used in cooking oil bottles, children and pet toys, and as a plastic food wrapping. PVC should never be reused for purposes that involve food or drink.
4. LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)
Although LDPE is considered relatively safe for use and less toxic than other plastics, it cannot be used for water bottles and most food purposes, and it is not commonly recycled. In instances when LDPE can be recycled, it is often reused for plastic lumber, floor tiles and garbage can liners. LDPE is typically used to create squeezable bottles, shrink wraps and bags to package bread.
5. PP (Polypropylene)
PP is a very versatile plastic utilized for a variety of purposes due to its tough and lightweight composition and its excellent resistance to heat. PP is an excellent barrier against moisture and chemicals, making it valuable in creating disposable diapers, pails, margarine and yogurt containers, plastic bottle tops, potato chip and cereal bags, straws and packing tape. This plastic has been historically difficult to recycle, but is becoming more widely accepted by recyclers over time. It is generally considered safe for reuse.
6. PS (Polystyrene)
This type of plastic is very inexpensive, easily-formed and lightweight, which grants it the versatility for many uses. PS is most often used to make disposable foam containers, such as coffee cups, take-out food containers, egg cartons, plastic cutlery and foam packaging chips. PS may leach styrene into food products — particularly when heated in a microwave — which is a possible human carcinogen. It is difficult to recycle PS, and because it is structurally weak, it breaks apart very easily making it a potential environmental hazard. As a rule of thumb, PS should be avoided when possible, and especially when food products are involved.
7. Other, PC or Non-Labeled Plastic (BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN)
This broad category of plastic was designed to be a catch-all for polycarbonate and other plastics, and as a result there are not standardized recycling protocols associated with this category. These plastics may contain BPA (Bisphenol A). It is commonly known that BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical that may leach into food or drink products packaged within the container. Research has even linked BPA exposure to migraines.
This final category covers a wide range of products, ranging from car parts to baby bottles and sippy cups. These plastics are not for reuse, and are best avoided, especially by children.
Plastic Safety Recommendations
As the descriptions provided above indicate, the safest types of plastics are found in categories #1 (PET), #2 (HDPE), and #4 (LDPE), with #2 (HDPE) largely considered the safest form of plastic. Two of the other types of plastics described, #3 (PVC) and #5 (PP), are generally safe for their intended purposes, but it is advisable to use them in moderation. Finally, the last two categories of plastic, #6 (PS) and #7 (Other), should be avoided whenever possible, and separated from food or drink products.
However, even once you feel comfortable using plastics in the safest manner possible, the best option of all is simply to refrain from using plastics whenever possible. Personal glass water bottles designed for reuse, glass containers, steel containers, and numerous other alternatives to plastic are not only much safer, but are better for the environment.
By limiting our use of plastics, we can reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals and carcinogens while helping the planet at the same time. For more, check out this article by our Editor-in-Chief Joshua Corn, in which he lays out a great argument for ditching plastic altogether: 5 Reasons to Kick Plastic Containers Out of Your Life
Derek is a technical writer and editor with 10 years of experience in the health care field, having first earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware. He is a contributing author on a number of textbooks in the medical field, ran a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and has written a variety of other pieces from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal interest in health and wellness by playing multiple sports and running marathons. An insatiable traveler, he spent 16 months working and living abroad while traveling through South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.