By the Numbers

Gary Anderson
Gary Anderson (right)

The Universal Recycling Symbol – internationally recognized and the product of a 1970 U.S. art contest. Culminating with the planet’s very first Earth Day, Gary Anderson a 23-year-old college student at the University of Southern California won and created the little triangle that’s now stamped on every recyclable product in the world. However, all triangles are not created the same. Here’s a deeper look at Plastic – By the Numbers.

#1 Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE): Pop bottle plastic, shampoo and water bottles. Probably the most common recycled plastic. Contains UV stabilizers and flame retardants, but has fewer harmful additives that will leach into landfills and your meal. Health Canada is, nonetheless, investigating it as one of 4,000 chemicals of potential concern that were brought onto the market without full safety assessments.

#2 High-density polyethylene (HDPE): Milk jugs, cleaning product bottles, shopping bags (not always recycled – check with your municipality). Most Canadian municipalities accept narrow-nose containers, but not all take wide-lipped ones such as margarine tubs. Not a bad plastic, compared to others.

#3 Polyvinyl chloride (V) or (PVC): Canada’s environmental group Greenpeace ranks this one as the biggest eco-villain of all. PVC, or vinyl, is made with vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. It’s said to emit persistent dioxins in both manufacture and incineration. Potentially hormone disrupting phthalates, lead and cadmium might be added to PVC products. Though it’s used mostly by the construction business, it’s also the basis of vinyl records, old car seats, and scary but true – toys! Rarely recycled.

#4 Low-density polyethylene (LDPE): Like its high density sibling (#2), #4 plastic isn’t as toxic to manufacture as other plastics, but it’s not commonly recycled.

#5 Polypropylene (PP): Not recyclable in many Canadian municipalities, which makes it unfavorable for single-use items, but it’s not considered a bad player in terms of manufacturing.

#6 Polystyrene (PS): Perhaps a category best known by the trade name Styrofoam. Tied with polyurethane for second worst plastic since making the stuff involves carcinogenic benzene, plus it’s not commonly recycled.

#7 Mixed bag (Other): Basically any plastic other than #1-6. Under this broad umbrella sits polycarbonate (the hard plastic used for refillable water bottles), which Canada’s Greenpeace tosses in the second-worst category of plastics. That’s a shocker because polycarbonate is often marketed to the green set as non-leaching, not to mention indestructible – perfect for outdoorsy types. But it’s often made with a highly toxic chlorine gas derivative and carcinogenic solvents. The data is conflicting as to whether or not it leaches these toxic chemicals. While the industry says no (adding that even if it were to leach it wouldn’t be enough to hurt you), some controversial studies suggest that, even at low doses, the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA) can be harmful.

Bioplastic: Plastic made from plant sources such as cornstarch or soy instead of petroleum. Making it creates up to three times less carbon dioxide per ton of plastic than the petrol kind. Unlike regular plastic, you can often bury bioplastic in your backyard and it should biodegrade after several months (don’t worry: it won’t break down while you’re using it, just under compost conditions). Health stores sometimes sell bioplastic cutlery, cups and plates.

Source: Most of this information came from Adria Vasil’s book “Ecoholic”. Check out her website here ( and follow her on twitter @ecoholicnation.

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