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Plastic Bottle Codes & Safety for Reuse or Recycle

Updated July 18, 2017

Plastics have been around for more than a century, but recycling programs have only been in place since the early 1980s. State-issued bottle deposit programs for the return of plastic drink containers started the plastic recycling movement as consumers returned bottles to get their deposit back. Approximately 60 per cent of the United States population has access to plastic recycling programs, according to AmericanChemistry.com, but not all plastic bottles are created equally.

Seven Codes

There are seven types of plastics presently in use, according to PlasticFreeBottles.com. They each have their own identification code. Number 1 identifies plastic bottles like soft drink, single-use water bottles, sport drinks and food jars and cosmetic containers. Plastic number 2 is coded for grocery bags, margarine and butter tubs, detergent bottles and milk and juice jugs.

Plastics coded number 3 include garden hoses, cable sheathing, window frames, blister packs and blood bags. Number 4 is used on heavy-duty plastic bags, dry-cleaning bags, bread wrappers, squeezable bottles and plastic food wrap.

Number 5 is the code for prescription medicine bottles, cereal box liners, packing tape, drinking straws and chip bags. CD and video cases, plastic cutlery and egg cartons are plastic number 6. Baby bottles, water cooler bottles and plastic car parts are coded number 7.

Number 1 Plastics

The most common plastics that consumers use are those coded as number 1. This plastic is made of polythene terephthalate and is often abbreviated as PET or PETE. PET is lightweight and shatter resistant and has been extensively tested for consumer safety. PET plastic bottles have been subjected to review by the Food and Drug Administration and must conform to federal regulations. According to PlasticFreeBottles.com, the recycling rate for number 1 coded plastic bottles is 23 per cent.

Number 2 Plastics

Bottles and containers coded with a number 2 are made of high-density polythene, or HDPE. Number 2 plastic bottles and food tubs are injection-moulded, rigid containers. The resin of HDPE is used for non-rigid, flexible consumer uses, but bottles and containers make up more than half of all HDPE products. Number 2 bottles began replacing glass containers in the 1970s. Solid waste generated by number 2 plastics is less than 1 per cent, according to WasteAge.com.

Plastic Numbers 3, 4 and 5

Plastic number 3 refers to plastics that are made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Frequently used in plumbing, plastic number 3 is considered toxic for ingestion and should be avoided for use in that manner.

Plastic number 4 is low-density polythene, or LDPE. The flexible quality of number 4 is used for squeezable bottles, such as those for lemon and lime juice. Number 4 is safe for consumer use. Less than 1 per cent of these plastics are recycled.

Polypropylene, PP, is the plastic coded number 5. Most consumers see this code on prescription medicine bottles and containers. PP is resistant to high temperatures and is considered safe for consumption uses. For medicinal purposes, it can be tinted amber or white or left a natural colour. Number 5 bottles and containers are recycled at a rate of 5 per cent, according to PlasticFreeBottles.com.

Plastic Numbers 6 and 7

Polystyrene, or PS, is plastic coded number 6. It should be avoided as a drinking container as it may leach styrene, a possible cancer-causing agent in humans, and it may also disrupt human hormones, according to PlasticFreeBottles.com. Less than 1 per cent of plastic number 6 is recycled.

Plastic number 7 is reserved for polycarbonate, known as the other PC. Although it is used for baby bottles, research shows it should be used with caution. The major concern of researchers is that leaching of the chemical Bisphenol A could occur and lead to human chromosomal damage. Bisphenol A is also found in automobile exhaust, cell phones and in water supplies, making it a universally present environmental threat, according to a May 2010 "Time" magazine article. Less than 1 per cent of this plastic is recycled.

Recycle or Reuse

Depending upon the municipality where you live, you may or may not be able to recycle all of these plastics. Many areas collect only plastics coded number 1 or number 2. In areas where all plastics are collected, they are usually sorted at the recycling facility and those that aren't number 1 or 2 are sent to the landfill. Reusing a bottle labelled number 1 can extend the bottle's life and keep it out of recycling for a time.

Safely Reusing Plastic Number 1

The major concern with the reuse of plastic bottles isn't that the plastic will leach out harmful chemicals, but rather that bacteria will grow in the bottles. According to PlasticsInfo.org, in plastic labelled number 1, PET plastic itself is sanitary, but when warmed it becomes susceptible to bacteria. When washing bottles for reuse, the key is to thoroughly dry the bottle before refilling it with water or another liquid.

PET plastic bottles are designed and sold for one-time use so they are not shaped with a wide opening for easy cleaning. Consumers must take extra care when washing these bottles in hot soapy water, allowing enough time before refilling for the bottle to completely dry.

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About the Author

Karen Sweeny-Justice is a writer living in Surprise, Ariz. Her work has appeared in "Writer's Digest" magazine and "RubberStampMadness" magazine, as well as in newspapers around the United States. She also writes book reviews for "RT Book Reviews" magazine.