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Plastics: What the numbers mean

  • Story Highlights
  • Number on plastic products denotes what type of plastic it is
  • Most plastics can be recycled, but some create hazardous chemicals in production
  • Every ton of plastic bottles recycled saves around 3.8 barrels oil, according to SPI
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(CNN) -- "Plastics deliver bountiful benefits to you and your world," exclaims the SPI web site, the online home of the U.S. plastics industry trade association.

If it seems a bit over the top, imagine your life and "your world" without plastics. Even die-hard steampunk fans might have second thoughts about a plastic-free existence.

As just one small example, imagine what a take-away meal would be like: Served on a real plate with cutlery, carried in a wooden box hammered together with nails. Perhaps that's a bit extreme, but you can be sure without plastics a "spork" would never have made the impact it has in your life.

The SPI then are right to gush; plastics have done much to improve our lot, but plastics also have a dark side. They have become the scourge of the environment with plastics bags and bottles filling up landfills, littering streets and the manufacture of plastics polluting the environment with hazardous chemicals and endangering health.

Some plastics are worse than others when it comes to leaving a mark on the environment, but an increasing number of them can be recycled.

One common misconception when it comes to plastics is that the number displayed in a little triangle of arrows means it can be recycled. It actually denotes what type of plastic the material is made of.

Most countries have recycling schemes that can easily recycle plastics with the numbers 1, 2, 5 and 6. Plastics with number 3, 4 and 7 are much harder to recycle.

Som experts believe there are also some health concerns about chemicals leaking from plastic containers with the numbers 3, 6 and 7. The chemicals could leach into food or drink if used for a long time or heated. Plastics with numbers 1, 2 4 and 5 are safe to contain food and drink.

One chemical that has expert worries and can be present in plastics with the number 7 is bisphenol A (BPA). Some scientists have claimed BPA can be a hormone disruptor and lead to illnesses such as cancer and impaired childhood development.


Last year Canada became the first country to ban baby bottles that contain BPA.

View the explainer and find out what each number means.

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