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Medical Editor:

How is plastic made and identified?

How many times a day do you use something made from plastic? I can guarantee that it's more than you think. Plastic has been a part of our lives for over 100 years, and its use continues to grow. In 2002, about 107 billion pounds of plastic were produced in North America. Recently, claims have been made about certain types of plastic being unsafe. Are we getting more than just storage when it comes to using plastic?

The process of making plastic is a complicated one. It begins with carbon from petroleum, natural gas, coal, or biological sources. The elements can be combined in various combinations in order to achieve a desired property and characteristic. The final product can be hard like the siding on your house or soft and flexible like shrink wrap.

Have you ever noticed the number with the arrows surrounding it on your plastic bottles? Many people use these numbers to determine how the product is to be recycled. These numbers are called the plastic packaging resin identification codes. They indicate the type of plastic that the item was made from and are used to help consumers know whether and how the item is to be recycled. According to the American Chemistry Council, the resin identification numbers are as follows:

  • No. 1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET, PETE)
  • No. 2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
  • No. 3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC, vinyl)
  • No. 4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
  • No. 5: Polypropylene (PP)
  • No. 6: Polystyrene (PS)
  • No. 7: Other: when package is made with a resin other than the six listed above, or is made of more than one resin and used in a multi-layer combination

Before a product made of plastic is allowed to hold any of your food, it needs to be tested for its intended purpose. For example, the plastic that is approved for use in your microwave has been approved for that purpose, while the plastic that carries your water was approved for that use, as well. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) admits that something will always "leach out of the container and into the food," so they try to determine the amount that someone will ingest over a lifetime versus the levels of a given substance that are known to be toxic. Their goal is to make sure that during our lifetime the amount that we consume will not pose any risk to our health. But what if their estimate of how much we consume is incorrect? What if the product containing plastic is not used according to the directions? These questions could be lifesaving ones. The first step is to know what kind of plastic is in your cabinets.


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