Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Plastic Rating System - unhealthy opinions vs. facts

There was something bugging me when I got back from the recent conference I attended... but it wasn't until I refilled the re-usable water bottle from my office that I remembered what it was. Those two gentlemen sitting near me during a break were talking loud enough for me to hear and become interested: "Hey Charlie, I'm ok - my bike bottle is a 2 and my other bottle is a 1 - so thanks for the info". Once it was clear that they were discussing the safety of plastic drinking bottles, I had to ask them to inform me. They told me that the codes on the bottom of every plastic bottle indicate different plastics which correlate to the safety of the bottle.. "1's are the safest and 7's are the most dangerous, generally", they said. "Wow - thanks guys - I'll take a look when I get home!".

So a few days later, with my new "green" water bottle in hand, I remember this discussion and flipped over my bottle - huh? "SEVEN!?", I said out loud. Time for some research, since it's hard to believe I would be given a water bottle which is good for the environment but bad for me. Well - it turns out I wish I had gotten the contact info for those two gentlemen - no, not to yell at them - but to tell them the facts. The codes are there as information for recycling - to identify the resins which make up the bottle. They're not intended to indicate safety.

The codes do provide, in a few cases, enough information to know you should avoid a certain bottle - for example, Code 3 is PVC (PolyVinyl Chloride) and Code 6 is PS (Polystyrene) - those seem to be universally accepted as the "avoid at all costs for food and drinking" type. Code 7, it turns out, is the "Other" type, which is a catch all to mean "either really dangerous (Polycarbonate) or really safe or something in between, depending on what it's made of". Ah, really helpful. And while Code 1 (PET/PETE - Polyethylene Terephthalate) is the most common for recyclable drink bottles in the US, just don't re-use it, heat it or scratch it. It seems the other codes - 2, 4 and 5 - just haven't had any conclusive research as of yet. Does that make them safer than those we know can harm you?

Regarding the relative "safety" of one type of platic versus another - particularly when using the recycling codes as virtually your only consistent guide - the LfT-Group (Live for Tomorrow) sum it up best:
"You may wish to seriously consider your – and especially your children's – use of plastics numbered 1, 3, 6 and 7 (polycarbonate), all of which have been shown to leach dangerous chemicals. This does not necessarily mean the others are completely safe, just that they have been studied less to date. So if you have to use plastic, it is safest to stick to numbers 2, 4, 5 and 7 (other than polycarbonate) whenever possible."

In my quick search for information (not the same as "research"), I found a few more links worth sharing with those of you who cared enough to read to here:

Health facts by each recycle rating
Lots of health information by each recycle rating
Complete information by each recycle rating (pdf)
Plastic bottle quick FAQ by type
Plastic bottle safety FAQ
General information on plastic rating system (wikipedia)
Good article on plastic containers
Be plastic-aware - dangers of each type
International Universal Recycling Codes
Official Recycle coding system from Hong Kong Environmental Protection Dept.

(NOTE: The folowing are internet sites of the American Chemistry Council® (ACC), which represents the leading companies engaged in the business of chemistry, including significant business groups such as the Plastics Division and the Chlorine Chemistry Division.)
American Chemistry Council's (ACC) Facts on Plastics site.
ACC Rumors and Myths about Plastics
ACC 2006 United States National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report
ACC Official Resin Codes Chart (PDF)


beyesn said...

Code seven is a “catch-all” category designated for all of the plastics that do not neatly fit into any of the first six categories that were developed in 1988. Code 7 identifies the newest types of plastics such as bio-based plastics made from corn, potato starch and sugar cane, and multi-layer plastics. You identified the entire category as “polycarbonate” which is incorrect.

Here’s the key point to remember about code 7: not all of the number 7 plastics are the same. In fact, the opposite is true. Unlike codes 1 through 6, code 7 identifies a variety of different plastics, or a mix of plastics in a single container, that can not be categorized under the other codes. Your readers might also be interested to know that the ASTM, with the help of SPI and other organizations are working to enhance the current code system, adding more categories so that perhaps 7 will not be such a “catch-all” in the future.


Family said...

Wow! Thats AMAZING! I hope I never find a bad bottle! I am going to post it on Rochelling. LOL!


Jonathan Rochelle said...

Thanks for the clarification... My original post probably wasn't clear when I said code 7 is "either really dangerous (Polycarbonate) or really safe or something in between, depending on what it's made of". I was trying to say what you said ;)

The Polycarbonate type, which (by definition?) contains BPA, it seems, still is very much supported as a safe material as long as you don't heat it, scratch it, wash it with abrasive cleaners, or, uh... eat it!
I'm looking forward to a better code system for sure.

MaryAnne said...

Perhaps plastic water bottles, soda bottles and microwaveable containers are to us what the lead cooking pots were to the Romans! As Nero burned down Rome I'll bet no one, as they were running for their lives, stopped to ponder, to the dulcet tones of the Emperor's fiddle, if it was the cooking pot that drove their ruler mad. Only through the prism of time and the focus of hindsight that we now know the Romans were slowly eating themselves mad and destroying their Empire with the thought blurring sickness of lead poisoning.
Can we, with all our touted scientific prowess, hopefully foretell a future where they look back at us and shake their heads in dismay, "Didn't they know that the dioxins, bisphenol A, phthalates and xenotoxins leaching from all those plastic containers was causing the increased cancers, osteoporosis, alzheimers, autism and epigenetic changes?" They simply drank themselves to death and mutation in the name of health! They worried about the terrorist attacks never realizing who owned the water companies! Crazy!

JR said...

What an awesome analogy... A view (and so eloquently put) that most of us are unwilling to challenge, since the impact on "convenience" is too great. Ah... there it is again... "convenience" - the one truth in product success, even when the cost is health. Perhaps.

BTW - this morning, my coffee guy changed to Polystyrene coffee cups (recycle #6)... he really cares about his customers - this, the same guy who has a sign hanging in his shop telling his customers "Our new credit manager is Ms. Helen Waite - so if you want credit, go to Helen Waite" (read it twice if you don't get it). Needless to say, I'm finding a new coffee guy. ;)

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