Between the toothbrush we begin our day with to the light switch we turn off at night, dozens of everyday products are made from plastic. Most plastics are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource which not only is a health hazard, but creates large amounts of pollution and waste. Plastics can leach out synthetic chemical additives that impact our health. In addition to being a health hazard, a large portion of this plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans, creating marine trash islands like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and Atlantic Trash Islands. In addition to polluting the marine ecosystems, these plastics leach out synthetic chemicals that impact marine organisms. In order to protect the health of our environment, it is important to first reduce the use of plastic materials and recycle them at the end of life.

Plastics products can easily be identified based on the number assigned to them. For instance, popular disposable water bottles are often made of polyethyelene terephthalate ethylene (PETE) and are assigned the number 1. Let’s take a look at each type of plastic in more detail:

  • Plastic 1-PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate ethylene): Used for packaging food and beverages. No known health impacts from use.
  • Plastic 2-HDPE (High Density Polyethylene): Used for packaging milk, detergents and in making some plastic bags. No known health impacts from use.
  • Plastic 3-PVC or V (Polyvinyl chloride): Used in clear food packaging, cling wrap, shower curtains, building materials, flooring and children’s products. Releases many harmful chemicals during production (like dioxins) that can cause learning and behavioral problems in children, suppress immune function and cause hormone disruption. PVC is the least recyclable plastic.
  • Plastic 4-LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene): Used to make plastic wraps and bags. No known health impacts from use.
  • Plastic 5-PP (Polypropylene): Used to make plastic containers, yogurt containers and straws. No known health impacts from use.
  • Plastic 6-PS (Polystyrene): Used to make "To-Go" containers, egg cartons, CD cases and other packaging. Styrene can leach from polystyrene and over the long term, can act as a neurotoxin. Studies on animals report harmful effects of styrene on red-blood cells, the liver, kidney, and stomach organs.
  • Plastic 7-OTHER or PC (Polycarbonate): This is a category for plastics that do not fit into the #1-6 categories. It includes polycarbonate, bio-based plastics, co-polyester, acrylic, polyamide and plastic mixtures like styrene-acrylonitrile resin. Avoid #7 plastic labeled PC since it can leach harmful bisphenol A (BPA). Plastic 7 marked OTHER, however does not contain BPA. Read more here.

To summarize, if plastics must be used, it is best to avoid plastics 3, 6 and 7 to minimize environmental and health impacts.


Additional Information for Plastics

PBS's Strange Days Smart Plastics Guide
summarizes seven different types of commonly used plastics, product examples, recyclability, and potential health risks
Ecology Center's
Adverse health effects guide from plastics
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's
Smart Plastics Guide, Healthier Food Uses of Plastics