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Are plastic bottles safe and what do the numbers mean?

Recycling is absolutely necessary but it’s a complicated business. For example, in the UK you should put the plastic bottles that milk comes in into the recycling but not the plastic screw-tops as they’re made from a different type of plastic. Thankfully, a lot of bottled drinks now carry a collection of symbols that make recycling easy.

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Symbols

There’s no prescribed marks or symbols that bottles have to carry in the UK but most drinks firms use the system devised by the American Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). The symbols are basically a triangle with a number from 1 to 7 within. Each number has a series of letters which help identify the type of plastic the container’s made from. The following list gives you the official breakdown.

  • # 1 –> PETE ….. polyethylene terephthalate
  • # 2 –> HDPE ….. High-density polyethylene
  • # 3 –> PVC ….. Polyvinyl chloride
  • # 4 –> LDPE ….. Low-density polyethylene
  • # 5 –> PP ….. Polypropylene
  • # 6 –> PS/PS-E ….. Polystyrene / expanded polystyrene
  • # 7 –> OTHER ….. Resins or multi-materials

Contaminate

Did you realise that some plastics actually contaminate the water held within the bottle. Ok, “contaminate” is too strong a word to use but you get the idea that chemicals within the plastic seep into the water which will affect the taste dramatically. If you’re tasting plastic, throw the drink and the bottle away. You might also find that a drinks bottle that didn’t affect the water within it when you first bought it starts to affect your drink when you refill the bottle with tap water. You should pick a bottle with the symbols #2 HDPE (high density polyethylene), or a #4 LDPE (low density polyethylene), or a #5 PP (polypropylene) if you want to make sure that your drink is served as intended.

Recycling

The good news for those of us interested in recycling is that nearly all types of plastic can be recycled. The extent that they can be reused really depends on economic and logistic factors however. The optimum for plastic is for it to be recycled into a product that itself can be recycled so it’s never wasted. At the moment the UK used 5 tonnes of plastic per year, but only around 24% of the material is recycled or recovered.

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