Although more studies are currently undertaken to establish how the toxicity of plastics is affecting human health, the research available at the present moment states that plastic in the ocean are absorbing high concentration of pollutants (PCBs and pesticides) from their surroundings (Colabuono et al. 2010). These postconsumer plastic fragments, along with pre production plastic resin pellets, collected in the Pacific Ocean, tested positive for the presence of persistent organic pollutants such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and aliphatic hydrocarbons (Rios et al. 2007). Many of these pollutants, such as PCBs and DDT, are known endocrine disruptors and developmental toxicants. Exposure to these chemicals during prenatal or early life can lead to irreversible effects in both wildlife and humans (Colborn et al. 1993). Evidence indicates that chemicals adsorbed onto plastics, as well as those chemicals utilized within the plastic structure, can be incorporated into living tissues. Plastic fragments can pass through some organisms, resulting in little to no accumulation depending upon organism and diet. Evidence is increasing regarding the potential for these chemicals to be released to humans from plastic containers used for food and drinks, plastic in medical applications, and in toys (Koch and Calafat 2009; Lang et al. 2008; Meeker et al. 2009; Talsness et al. 2009), this leading to introduction of legislation on human usage of plastic items containing additives in some countries. C. Rochman et al. 2015 established the presence of anthropogenic debris in fish and shellfish on sale for human consumption, both in Indonesia and USA.
The majority of the plastics available on the market nowadays are part from 6 categories, with a generic 7th that stands for the downcycled plastics of the first 6 categories and other plastics.
Most of the plastic products have a printed number ranging from #1 to #7, surrounded by arrows, which stands for the main polymer contained by that particular plastic product. This system was developed in 1988 by the U.S. Society of Plastics and has become an international standard. The main reason for developing this system is recycling, which cannot be done mixing all different types of plastic due to their different characteristics.
These codes do not guarantee recycling and they do not indicate the level of safety or toxicity.
#1 POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE (PET/PETE/polyester) - mostly used in the textile industry and the food and drinks industry.
USES: bottles (water, soft drink, juice, beer, wine, dressings), microwaveable and oven-ready meal trays, cosmetics, detergents and cleaning containers, fabric and clothing, liquid crystal displays, film for capacitors, insulation for wire and insulating tapes, finish for wood products.
TOXICITY: PET may leach antimony (carcinogen, related to respiratory problems, skin irritation, menstrual problems, miscarriages) in the case of long term storage or exposure to high temperatures during the process of storage. Studies also reveal phthalate endocrine disruptors leach from PET. Polyester as textile contains flame retardants, whose effect on human health is currently unknown.
RECYCLING: around 57% in Europe, downcycled in polyester fiber for fleece clothing, tote bags, strapping.
ALTERNATIVEs: Stainless steel/ glass bottles for drinks, stainless steel/ glass/ ceramic containers, natural fabrics for clothing.
#2 HIGH DENSITY POLYETHYLENE (HDPE) - most used plastic world-wide, with numerous applications.
USES: grocery plastic bags, opaque water, milk and juice containers, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles, garbage bags, dishes, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners, medicine bottles, insulation, piping, plastic/ wood composites.
TOXICITY: although a relatively stable plastic, it may leach nonylphenol when exposed to ultraviolet light/ sunlight, as well as other additives with estrogen-mimicking activity.
RECYCLING: about 10-15% in Europe, downcycled in bottles for non-food items, plastic lumber and furniture, piping, recycling bins, fencing, floor tile, buckets, crates, flower pots, garden edging, film and sheeting.
ALTERNATIVEs: reusable bags from cotton/ hemp for grocery shopping, glass bottles/ jars, stainless steel/ bamboo containers.
#3 POLYVINYL CHLORIDE (V or Vinyl or PVC) - the use of PVC has decreased due to serious health and environmental pollution issues associated with its production process, use and disposal. The toxicity issues related to PVC are given by the presence of chloride, which can and is combined to multiple toxic additives (phthalates).
USES: toys, take-away containers for food, non-food packaging, squeeze bottles, shampoo bottles, mouthwash bottles, cooking oil bottles, detergent and window-cleaner bottles, shower curtains, blood bags and medical tubing, clothing, wire and cable insulation, carpet backing and flooring, blister packs, clamshell packaging, credit cards, piping, vinyl siding, window frames, fencing, decking, multiple construction materials.
TOXICITY: may leach chloride (carcinogen), bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates (endocrine disruptors linked to asthma, allergic symptoms, ADHD, different types of cancer), lead, dioxins, mercury, cadmium.
RECYCLING: about 20% in Europe, has the potential of contaminating the recycling stream. Recycled in packaging, binders, decking, paneling, insulation, mud flaps, film and sheet, flooring, garden hoses.
ALTERNATIVEs: glass/stainless steel reusable bottles and food storage containers, non-plastic food wrapping, recycled paper, cellulose wadding, compostable cornstarch peanuts or paper bits for packaging, natural materials for shower curtains (hemp, cotton), rubber hoses.
#4 LOW DENSITY POLYETHYLENE (LDPE) - mainly used for packaging.
USES: grocery bags, dry cleaning bags, bread packaging, frozen foods bags, news papers/magazines packaging, garbage bags, plastic wraps, coating for paper milk cartons, hot & cold beverage cups, squeezable bottles, food storage containers, container lids, wire & cable covering.
TOXICITY: May leach nonylphenol (additive) and other additives with estrogen-mimicking activity.
RECYCLING: Low, difficult to recycle. Recycled into compost bins, paneling, plastic lumber.
ALTERNATIVEs: Glass/stainless steel reusable bottles, stainless steel/bamboo containers, cloth reusable bags.
#5 POLYPROPYLENE (PP) - mainly used in the food industry for storing hot processed food.
USES: food containers (ketchup, yogurt, cottage cheese, margarine, syrup, take-away), medicine containers, straws, bottle caps, Britta filters, opaque plastic containers, baby bottles, diapers & sanitary pad liners, thermal vests, appliance parts, car parts (bumpers, carpets, fixtures).
TOXICITY: may leach plastic additives (agent oleamide).
RECYCLING: low, difficult to sort. Recycled into brooms, brushes, bins pallets, auto battery cases, flower pots.
ALTERNATIVEs: glass jars, paper, cardboard.
#6 POLYSTYRENE (PS) - commonly associated with the trade name Styrofoam, it is mainly used for food containers and packaging (expanded PS/EPS).
USES EPS: food containers, egg cartons, disposable cups & bowls, take-out food containers, hot food plates, packaging, packaging peanuts, bike helmets.
USES PS: disposable cutlery, razors, CD & DVD cases, hangers, smoke detectors, license plate frames, medicine bottles, test tubes, petri dishes, model assembly kits.
TOXICITY: can leach styrene (human carcinogen, considered a brain & nervous system toxicant). Animal testing have showed gene, lungs, liver and immune system alterations. Styrene leaching increases when the food contained is hot and oily.
RECYCLING: very low, difficult to recycle. Recycled into packaging and thermal insulation.
ALTERNATIVEs: own take-away containers (glass, ceramic, stainless steel), reusable dishes & cutlery (stainless steel, bamboo).
#7 OTHER (O) - all other plastics, including bioplastics
#POLYCARBONATE (PC) - mainly used as an alternative to die-cast metal, its usage has decreased due to the fact that it contains bisphenol A (BPA).
USES: baby bottles, sippy cups, water bottles, large water storage containers, metal food can liners, juice and ketchup containers, oven- baking bags, carbonless paper, packaging, eye glass lenses, epoxy resins, dental sealants, CDs, DVDs, lab equipment, gears, snowboards, car parts, cell phones, computers, power tools.
TOXICITY: bisphenol A (BPA) is an endocrine disruptor which may alter cellular function, reproduction, development and behavior. Scientific studies link BPA to numerous health problems including chromosome damage in female ovaries, decreased sperm production, early onset of puberty, various behavioral changes, altered immune function, sex reversal in frogs, impaired brain and neurological functions, cardiovascular system damage, type II diabetes, obesity, resistance to chemotherapy, increased risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, infertility, metabolic disorder.
RECYCLING: very low. Recycled into plastic lumber.
ALTERNATIVEs: glass/ stainless steel reusable bottle, glass/stainless steel baby bottle, medicinal silicone, opt for music/ films in digital format, natural materials.
#ACRYLICS - Acrilonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), Acrylonitrile Styrene (AS, SAN), Methacrylates
USES: ABS is used to manufacture toys, dishes, small appliances, luggage, musical instruments, golf head clubs, office equipment, car parts, computers and electronics, helmets, whitewater canoes, furniture edging, Plexiglas, plane window, outdoor signs, aquariums, shower doors.
Methacrylates are used in dental applications.
TOXICITY: ABS and AS/SAN contain styrene, so they are highly toxic. The methacrylates are thought to be toxic to cells, while methyl methacrylate is considered toxic by EPA.
RECYCLING: low, mainly because they are difficult to recover, but also because they are mix with other plastics.
ALTERNTIVEs: stainless steel/ ceramic/ glass dishes, bamboo/ wood toys.
#EPOXIES - are a polymer group gathering adhesives, plastics, paints, etc. The most common epoxies are made by combining ephichlorohydrin and besphenol A, both of which are seriously toxic.
USES: lining for food cans, coatings, sealants, adhesives, composite materials, insulators, dental applications.
TOXICITY: ephichlorohydrin is considered a probable human carcinogen in some countries, BPA is related to endocrine disruption. Can cause dermatitis, eye, throat & skin irritations, skin allergies, asthma.
RECYCLING: not recycled.
ALTERNATIVES: eco-friendly/ natural adhesives, coatings, sealants.
#LATEX (Synthetic Rubber)
USES: toys, piping, baby bottle nipples, soothers, gloves, shoes, toys, tires, balls, balloons, carpeting, hot water bottles, disposable diapers, sanitary pads, rubber bands, erasers, swimming goggles, racket handles, motorcycle and bicycle handgrips, condoms, diaphragms, medical equipment.
TOXICITY: Contains nitrosamines (carcinogens). Linked to allergies, dermatitis.
RECYCLING: Low, does occur for tires, but with environmental costs.
ALTERNATIVEs: Natural latex, silicone.
#MELAMINE RESIN - mainly used in household consumer goods and construction applications, this plastic is formed through the polymerization of melamine and formaldehyde.
USES: dishes, utensils, dry erase boards, high pressure laminates, laminate flooring, cabinets.
TOXICITY: studies link melamine to serious kidney damage, kidney stones formation. Formaldehyde is highly toxic and carcinogen.
RECYCLING: very low.
ALTERNATIVEs: stainless steel/ glass/ ceramic dishware, stainless steel/bamboo utensils, eco-friendly sustainable construction materials.
#NEOPRENE (polychloroprenes) - synthetic rubbers formed by the polymerization of chloroprene, which is obtained from chlorine and butadiene.
USES: clothing, sports equipment, laptop sleeves, lunch bags, orthopedic braces, masks and face protection, electrical insulation, liquid sheet applied elastomeric membranes or flashing, automotive fan belts, insulation, gaskets, hoses, adhesives, caulks, corrosion-resistant coatings, padding, weather stripping, flame-resistant cushioning.
TOXICITY: neoprene may cause allergic reactions (dermatitis, eczema), due to the plasticizers (thioureas) added in the formation process; ethylene thiourea is linked to thyroid problems and classified as a carcinogen.
RECYCLING: likely very low due to the fact that neoprene is mixed with other synthetic rubbers, thus making the recycling process difficult.
ALTERNATIVEs: cotton/ wool-insulated/ metal lunch boxes, wool/ cotton clothing.
#POLYAMIDES (Nylon, Kevlar) - used for numerous consumer and industrial products.
USES nylon: clothing, stockings, textiles and fabrics, wedding veils, rope, instrument strings, tents, toothbrush and hairbrush bristles, combs, carpets, seatbelts, tires, boat propellers, skateboard wheels, tents, military supplies, screws, gears, car parts, fuel lines, fuel tanks.
USES kevlar: heavy duty clothing, shoes, bicycle tires, sports raquet strings, racing sails, body armour, drumheads, audio equipment, non-stick frying pan coating (other than Teflon), rope, cable, sheath coating for fiber optic cable, joints, hoses, car brakes.
TOXICITY: studies link the usage of (carcinogen) additives in synthetic clothing to skin irritations, skin allergies.
RECYCLING: unclear, but likely very low.
ALTERNATIVEs: wool/ cotton clothing.
#POLYTETRAFLOURETHYLENE (PTFF/ Teflon) - mainly used for cookware equipment (Teflon) and waterproof, breathable fabric (Gore-Tex).
USES: coating for cooking equipment, aerospace and computer applications, sports wear.
TOXICITY: studies link PFOA (perflourooctanic acid) to cancers, endocrine system disorders, immune system, liver & pituitary gland disorders. Considered a toxic carcinogen and high environmental pollutant, PFOA's production decreased in North America, but increased in China and Japan.
RECYCLING: likely very low.
ALTERNATIVEs: ceramic coating cookware, cotton/wool-insulated clothes.
#POLYURETHANES (Spandex/ Lycra)
USES: mattresses, high-resilience foam seating, rigid insulation panels, spray foam insulation, microcellular foam seals and gaskets, carpet underlay, wheels and tires, car parts, hard plastic parts for electronics, hoses, skateboards wheels, high performance adhesives, surface coatings, varnishes and sealants, coating for silicone breast implants, synthetic fibers.
TOXICITY: Isocynates are linked to asthma and dermatitis. Phosgene is a known poisonous gas used in WWI, but its effects on human health are little researched. Lycra&Spandex are linked to skin irritations, rashes and contact dermatitis. Serious health and environmental concerns are associated with polyurethane spray foam insulations. Polyurethane foam matrasses may release a variety of additive chemicals and flame retardants while used.
RECYCLING: likely very low.
ALTERNATIVEs: wool/cotton clothing, cotton and cellulose insulation, natural organic matrasses, ecofriendly adhesives, coatings, sealants.
#SILICONE - part of the rubber family, silicone is a hybrid between a synthetic rubber and a synthetic plastic polymer. It is much more temperature resistant and durable than plastic is, having a low reactivity with chemicals.
USES: baby nipples, cookware, utensils, toys, insulation, sealants, adhesives, lubricants, gaskets, filters, medical applications, casing for electronic components.
TOXICITY: no links to health issues, although studies show that silicone can leach synthetic chemicals at low levels (increased by fatty substances). D5 (used as softener in cosmetics) is considered a carcinogen. Some studies link medical equipment made from silicone to local inflammations.
RECYCLABILITY: Low recyclability rate.
#BIOPLASTICS - biopolymers (cellulose, lignin, chitin, wool, starch, protein, etc) and synthetic polymers (Acetyl cellulose, Alkyd, DECP, PE, PHB, PLA, rayon, starch) manufactured from biomass.
USES biopolymers: medicine, agriculture, construction, industrial (dispersant, additive, raw material), paper manufacturing, cellophane and rayon, fuel, clothing.
USES synthetic polymers: fibers, coatings, moulds, film for packaging, tissue engineering, pipes, containers, bottles, clothing, medicine, agriculture, cosmetics, 3D printing.
TOXICITY: being relative new, there are no studies about the toxicity of bioplastics. Although, based on existing research, we can easily predict that they do collect toxins and other chemical from the surrounding environment.
RECYCLABILITY: low, people share the misconception that bioplastics are biodegradable, so they do not have to recycle them. In fact, bioplastics only degrade in certain industrial condition.