Is #5 Plastic Safe?

February 1, 2009

Q: It seems like more products are being packaged in #5 rather than #2 plastic today, and my local recycling agency won’t take #5. I’ve also heard that #5 plastics are more toxic, which concerns me more than the recyclability issue. Which plastic is the better choice? Is #5 Plastic Safe?

Polypropylene, which is marked with #5 inside the “chasing arrows” symbols on the bottom of plastic containers, is a lighter-weight plastic resin commonly used in dairy and deli packaging. Some companies have chosen this lighter plastic because it has a lower environmental impact to produce and transport. High density polyethylene (HDPE), which is marked with #2, is a stiffer resin used to package cleaning products and also some dairy products. The most widely used resin type for consumer food products is polyethylene terephthalate, or PETE, which is marked with #1 and used for soda and water bottles.

According to Consumers Union’s “Greener Choices” website, all three of these plastics are considered safe for their original use, though any of them can leak toxins when reused repeatedly. And all three can be recycled, though a lagging market leads some recycling locations to limit what they’ll accept. There is also concern that widespread plastics recycling encourages more use of plastics, and that efforts would be better spent getting consumers to buy fewer plastic-encased products. Some even criticize the chasing-arrow labeling system for implying a higher level of recyclability than is presently available.

Why is a lighter-weight plastic better? According to dairy company Stonyfield Farm, their #5 one-quart yogurt container uses 30 percent less plastic than a #2 cup. Since it takes less material to make a thinner container, it reduces the amount of resin that needs to be manufactured. Stonyfield estimates that the use of #5 over #2 prevents the manufacture and disposal of more than 100 tons of plastic per year.

But savings comes from more than manufacturing. The heavier #2 plastics require more energy to transport. It’s not only getting the yogurt from Stonyfield’s plants to your store, but also getting the containers from the plastics manufacturer to their dairies. In fact, the company cites a packaging study by the Boston-based Tellus Institute which found that 95 percent of the environmental costs of packaging lie in production and less than five percent are associated with disposal.

According to the website Earth 911, a national directory of recycling outlets, the best thing consumers can do is to choose items with less packaging and buy in bulk when possible. So the next time you reach into the dairy case, grab the quart or gallon-size yogurt instead of the single-serving cups. Then, make sure you recycle only the allowable plastics so you don’t contaminate the lot. While recycling is important, it may be okay to landfill a product’s packaging if it was created with an environmentally responsible plan.

Besides seeking alternatives to plastic packaging, consumers can affect overall plastic use by supporting legislation that would require manufacturers to take back their plastic packaging, which would encourage “cradle-to-grave” practices. Further, you can support legislation that mandates more use of recycled plastic content, which would reduce the overall amount of virgin plastic produced in the first place.

CONTACTS: Stonyfield Farm’s Earth Actions; Consumer Reports Greener Choices; Earth 911.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 USA; submit it at EarthTalk; or e-mail us. Read past columns at our archives.

Filed in: Recycling • Tags: , ,

About the Author:

After a varied past of being a test driver for automotive television programs, a Hollywood studio lackey, and an online media sales director, David is now the publisher and editor of The Good Human. In his spare time he rides motorcycles, drinks good beer, and builds stuff in the garage. You can follow him on Twitter at @thegoodhuman or G+ at Google
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Comments (6)

  1. Dan says:

    I was eating baked beans out of a container which had a 5 on the bottom and was wondering if it was safe or not. Thanks to your article my question was answered.

  2. Chandra says:

    I am slightly annoyed how as consumers we are expected to purchase products that have less packaging. How about the manufacturing companies stop over packaging everything…just a thought :)

  3. Garry Lai says:

    The article is correct when it states that any plastic can leach toxins.
    For health safety, the preferred plastics are #2, #4 and #5.
    The plastics to avoid are #1, #3, and #7.

  4. Pat says:

    I am just so frustrated with plastic in general. We are forced to buy all kinds of products encased in plastic which at times is aggravating trying to open. We, as consumers are not given much choice. I would much prefer glass, but companies have decided they we need to use plastic, which I assume has to do with cost. I wasn’t aware of the danger of heating in plastic containers so that was a wake up0 call for me. Corporations need to consider alternative packaging.

  5. Diane says:

    Pat,
    I also prefer glass to plastic, for everything. We need to make our voices heard and keep sharing the dangers of our environment with others so we can all make better choices. Part of that may mean going back to doing things the less convenient way and taking more time to prepare our food. Also, don’t trust anyone who says that any plastic is safe to microwave. Just microwave in glass or ceramic.