Sustainable Living and the Quick Guide to Plastics

It’s been established that for sustainable living we should as a group do our best to limit the amount of plastics we purchase and use. However while there are plenty of reasons to abstain from plastics when we can (think ditching those one time use plastic water bottles) avoiding this material all together is nearly impossible. In fact if you use certain plastics wisely (and even creatively!) you could end up reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfills. An example would be opting for reusable food containers instead of plastic wrap; you’d prolong the shelf life of your foods, limit waste, but also be strategically picking your plastics.

So for the environmentally conscious and sustainable living folks what kinds of plastics are the ‘good’ and what are the ‘bad’ or even the ugly? This is kind of a complicated question because it has a few different factors, both health concerns and environmental. Let’s start by dignifying that there are seven different plastic types:

1- PET: these are going to be your drink bottles like water and soda as well as other food containers like oils, dressings, peanut butter, etc.

2- HDPE: these are what you will find holding your dishwashing soaps and also milk or juice jugs

3- PVC: this would be food wraps, certain oil containers in the kitchen, and also pipes for plumbing

4- LDPE: here we have those plastic shopping bags, bags for beads, certain food wrappings, and bottles that are squeezable

5- PP: here are straws, microwave dinner trays, yogurt containers, opaque water bottles, and bottles for your medicines

6- PS: also known as Styrofoam, these are going to be cups and even plates and utensils, fish and meat trays, and toys

7- OTHER: here is anything else that isn’t categorized above and it can be a smorgasbord of any of the above plastics

Here is the sustainable living low down from here; different plastics are recycled and used for different purposes. Some you have to go out of your way to properly dispose of and some are able to be picked up curbside. For example plastics 1, 2, 5, and usually 6 are all able to be picked up through a traditional garbage service. For those plastic bags you will see more and more grocery markets having bins out front that you can dispose of them there; though hopefully you have become environmentally aware enough to ditch those for a reusable bag by now. You see it’s being selective with what plastics you purchase and use and then making the effort to recycle them.

What is interesting is that more and more manufacturers are doing what they can to recycle as much of their plastic products as possible; this is good news for sustainable living being that even the greenest of folks would have trouble ousting all things plastic. Finally in terms of the health safety of plastics that is also cause for debate and there are more and more studies being done. Certain plastics have been known to seep toxic chemicals if they are used around foods or even in the homes at all. This is no doubt scary but here are some plastic safety suggestions: plastics 3, 6, and 7 are the ones pegged as most hazardous to your health. Be on the lookout and you may want to avoid using these for items such as baby bottles, water bottles, even mattresses, and you shouldn’t be heating your foods in them. One time use soda and water bottles, plastics 1, aren’t as apt to seep chemicals but shouldn’t be used again because they are prone to growing bacteria in them which can make you sick.

This is just a crash course in plastics for sustainable living and there is plenty more that can be said on the topic no doubt! There are easily removed plastics from our lives (soda bottles, food wraps, plastic bags, etc.) which can be avoided but from there do your best to be a smart plastic consumer…and then recycler!

Photo credit: Marco Papale