Everything You Need to Know About Plastic Number 7:
Is It Safe? Is It Recyclable?
We’ve all seen them – those pesky little numbers on the bottom of our plastic containers. But what do they mean?
In short, they are referring to seven types of plastics in the coding system, and plastic number 7 is used for plastic that doesn’t fit any other category from 1 to 6, containing everything from biodegradable plastics to polycarbonate.
So, is plastic number 7 safe and recyclable? And what about the other six categories? Let’s find out!
Know Your Plastics: A Primer
Plastic is made from a range of natural and synthetic polymers, with most plastic made from fossil fuels like natural gas and crude oil. It’s a material made to last forever, yet 33 percent of it – water bottles, bags, and straws – is used just once and thrown away.
It can take up to 20 to 500 years for plastic to decompose, which is something we already talked about in the previous article. What’s worse, is that only around nine percent of all the plastic ever made has been recycled. So, what can we do to change that, or at least reduce our plastic consumption?
First, we need to learn about the different types of plastics and what they are used for. That way, we can be more mindful about the type of plastic we use and how to properly recycle it.
Plastic Coding System – Resin Types
The Plastic Coding System was put in place in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry to help with recycling plastic. Each type of plastic has a different recycling code, which is represented by a symbol and is usually found on the bottom of bottles and containers. You can find the recycling symbol, along with a number from one to seven inside the triangle, on most plastic packaging. That set of symbols is called ASTM International Resin Identification Code System or RIC.
Before we get into whether plastic number seven is safe and recyclable, let’s quickly recap the different types of plastics out there:
♳ Plastic #1 PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)
PET or PETE is polyethylene terephthalate and is mostly used for water and soda bottles. It’s semi-rigid, transparent, and shatter-resistant.
Why do we use it? It’s cheap, lightweight, and easy to recycle.
Common items made from it: Water and soda bottles, food containers.
Is it safe? PET is considered safe, although it’s recommended that you avoid heating it.
Is it recyclable? Yes, PET is easily recyclable, but only around 20 percent of PET actually gets recycled because people often mistake it for non-recyclable plastic, or they simply don’t recycle it. However, recycled PET can be made into fiber for clothing, carpeting, and sleeping bags. It can also be used to make new containers, including water bottles.
♴ Plastic #2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene)
HDPE is a lightweight, strong plastic, mostly used for water and milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and some reusable deli containers and toys. It’s a stiff plastic that’s opaque or translucent.
Why do we use it? It’s strong and can withstand high temperatures.
Common items made from it: Plastic milk bottles, juice containers, laundry detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, motor oil bottles, garbage bags, and more.
Is it safe? Yes, HDPE is a safe plastic, and it’s never been linked with any toxic chemicals, which is exactly the reason why you can find HDPE in everything from reusable plastic bottles to children’s toys.
Is it recyclable? Yes. Although there are different stages of HDPE plastic, all of it can be recycled and transformed into other HDPE plastic products. Once recycled, this type of plastic can be made into garden benches, picnic tables, and lumber for playgrounds. You can also reuse it yourself for DIY projects.
♵ Plastic #3 PVC or V (polyvinyl chloride)
PVC or V is polyvinyl chloride, which is found in food wraps, pipes, and medical equipment. It’s a rigid plastic, often used in construction because it’s cheap, durable, and easy to work with. Unfortunately, it can be quite harmful to both our health and the environment.
Why do we use it? It’s strong, durable, inexpensive, and weather-resistant.
Common items made from it: Plastic pipes, cooking oil bottles, cling film, food packaging, medical equipment, some toys, and credit cards.
Is it safe? It may not be. PVC is one of the most toxic forms of plastic. It can release harmful chemicals when heated, which is why you shouldn’t reuse PVC containers or cook with them. When burned, PVC releases dioxins – one of the most toxic chemicals known to science. Dioxins are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and may cause a range of other health problems. They can also accumulate in the food chain, with animals at the top of the food chain having the highest levels of dioxins in their body.
Is it recyclable? Rarely. PVC is not easily recyclable and often ends up in landfill where it can leach chemicals into the ground and cause pollution. You’ll need to check with your local recycling program to see if they accept PVCs, as most don’t.
♶ Plastic #4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene)
Low-density polyethylene is the most common type of plastic. You can find it in everything from food packaging to grocery bags. It’s a soft, flexible plastic that’s easy to mold.
Why do we use it? LDPE is flexible, durable, and heat-resistant.
Common items made from it: Plastic bags, dry cleaning bags, food packaging, some squeezable bottles, and more.
Is it safe? Yes, LDPE is considered a safe type of plastic and is approved for food contact by the FDA. It doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals, which is why is often used for food packaging.
Is it recyclable? The problem with LDPE is not its safety in terms of health but mainly an environmental one. It’s often not accepted in typical curbside recycling programs because it’s difficult to recycle.
♷ Plastic #5 PP (polypropylene)
Polypropylene is a type of plastic that is semi-rigid and clear. Is used in everything – from food packaging to car parts. It’s a strong, stiff plastic that’s heat-resistant and has a low density.
Why do we use it? It’s durable and has a low moisture absorption rate.
Common items made from it: Plastic food containers (yogurt containers, ketchup bottles), some reusable water bottles, medicine bottles, car parts, and more.
Is it safe? Yes, polypropylene is considered a safe type of plastic that’s approved for food contact by the FDA. It’s used for packaging food because it doesn’t absorb flavor and is microwave-safe. It’s also used in car parts because it can withstand high temperatures.
Is it recyclable? Yes, polypropylene is one of the most widely recycled types of plastic, although it’s not always accepted by local recycling programs. You can check with your local recycling program to see if they accept it.
♸ Plastic #6 PS (polystyrene)
Polystyrene is a synthetic aromatic polymer made from monomer styrene. Is used for packaging and insulation, and it’s often found in drinking cups, food containers, packing peanuts, and plastic utensils.
Why do we use it? It’s lightweight, durable, cheap, heat-resistant, and easy to mold.
Common items made from it: Plastic food containers (takeout containers, egg cartons), meat trays, Styrofoam cups, and plates.
Is it safe? While the FDA has approved its use in food contact applications, some studies have shown that polystyrene can leach styrene monomer, which is a possible carcinogen, into food and drinks. For this reason, some countries have banned polystyrene food containers.
Is it recyclable? Polystyrene can technically be recycled, but most recycling facilities don’t accept it because it’s not cost-effective to recycle.
♹ Plastic #7 (PLA) And Its Properties
Finally, there’s plastic number 7 which is a catch-all category for plastics that don’t fit into one of the other six categories. It includes acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate, polylactic acid, and more.
The properties of these plastics vary widely because they’re made from different materials. They can be rigid or flexible, clear or opaque, and heat-resistant or not, which is why they also have a variety of applications. PLA is often used for multi-layer packagings, such as milk cartons and some types of juice containers, as well as certain hard-to-recycle plastics like three-ring binders and CD cases.
So, does that means plastic number seven is safe? Well, the jury is still out on this one.
Despite all of that, not all PLA products are created equal. Some types of PLA aren’t safe and can’t be recycled at all. Let’s see why.
Is It Safe To Use Plastic #7?
The safety of plastic number seven depends on the specific type of plastic. Some studies have shown that BPA can leach into food and beverages, while other studies have found no evidence of this. As an example, a study by the University of Plymouth found that when PLA was heated, it released toxic fumes. On the other hand, a study by the University of Massachusetts found that PLA was no more harmful than any other type of plastic.
The European Union has banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, and Canada has classified it as a toxic substance. In the United States, the FDA has banned the use of BPA in baby bottles but not in other food containers.
So, what’s the verdict?
At this point, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to use plastic number seven. If you’re concerned about BPA, look for BPA-free plastics. However, since a lot of plastic types release toxins when heated, it’s best to make sure to avoid microwaving or putting them in the dishwasher.
Recycling Plastic #7
The recyclability of plastic number seven also depends on the specific type of plastic. Some types of PLA, such as polylactic acid, can be recycled, while others cannot. For example, polystyrene (PS) is not recyclable, but polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is. Vegetable-based plastics (or biodegradable plastic) such as PLA are often labeled as plastic #7, but they are not recyclable.
To find out if a specific type of plastic is recyclable, check the recycling symbol on the product.
The recycling symbol for plastic products is a triangle formed by three circling arrows, with a number in the center (). The number in the middle indicates how much of it has been made from recycled materials, while sometimes this logo includes an amount that’s been calculated as well. If there is no recycling symbol, or if the recycling symbol has an “X” in it, that means the product is not recyclable.
The Bottom Line
The safety and recyclability of plastic, especially number seven, depends on the specific type of plastic. If you’re concerned about safety, look for BPA-free plastics. However, if you’re interested in recycling, make sure to always check the recycling symbol on the product.
What’s your experience and what are your concerns? Share them with us in the comments section below.
Table of Contents
Frequently Asked Questions
SPI stands for Society of the Plastics Industry. The SPI code is a resin identification coding system that was developed in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry to help with recycling plastic.
SPI codes are symbols that indicate what type of plastic an object is made from. They can be found on the bottom of most plastic containers.
A thermoplastic is a type of plastic that can be repeatedly melted and reformed. Most plastics are thermoplastics. The word “thermoplastic” comes from the fact that these types of plastics become soft and moldable when they are heated, and harden when they are cooled.
Polypropylene (PP) is a thermoplastic made from propylene gas, and it’s considered microwave-safe because it is heat resistant and therefore won’t get warped in the microwave. You’ll see “microwave safe” symbols on some plastics, including PP. That means the material won’t melt or release harmful chemicals into food when microwaved. PP is also dishwasher safe.
To make a long story short: plastic recycling numbers 2, 4, and 5 are the safest.
LDPE is a thermoplastic made from petroleum. It’s used for packaging (plastic bags, plastic wrap) and pipes. It’s clear or tinted and tough, and not as hard as HDPE but can handle more heat. With a low melting point, LDPE can be easily processed and formed. It’s sometimes recycled into plastic lumber, plastic bags, plastic wrap, pipe fittings
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) is the most common in bottled water. It’s usually safe, but some research has found that it can leach chemicals into the water, especially when exposed to heat or over time.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical found in some plastics. It’s been linked to health risks like obesity, cancer, and reproductive issues. The European Union has banned BPA in baby bottles, and Canada has declared it a toxic substance. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that BPA is safe at the current levels found in food and beverages.
PDK plastic is a type of plastic made from petroleum. It is often used to make food containers, water bottles, and medical devices.
PDK plastic is not safe for reuse or recycling. It should be disposed of in a landfill.
Biodegradable plastic is a type of plastic that can be broken down by bacteria or other living things. It’s made from renewable resources, such as corn starch or vegetable oil. However, not all types of it are biodegradable.