Its association with health risks is because most plastics contain chemicals that are known as hormone-disruptor and they can leach into food and beverages. Plastics are made from petroleum – a non-renewable material and it takes large volume of landfill space. I will make a short review of each plastic label after which I will try to put together some recommendations. However, please consider that no plastic may be safe; some plastics are considered "good" or safe because there is no sufficient research to prove otherwise.
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#1 PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate ethylene used for soft drink, juice, water, detergent, cleaner and peanut butter containers. It was considered the safest and is the most common plastic and easy to recycle. However, a recent study found traces of DEHP in bottled water stored in a PET bottle for more than 9 months.
#2 HDPE: High density polyethylene, used in opaque plastic milk and water jugs, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles and some plastic bags. It is considered safe and easy to recycle.
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#3 PVC or V or DEHA : Polyvinyl chloride or di(2-ethylhexyl)adipate used for cling wrap, some plastic squeeze bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles. PVC is well known to be associated with liver cancer. DEHA is linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation and body weight. It is the least recyclable.
#4 LDPE: Low density polyethylene, used in grocery store bags, most plastic wraps and some bottles. It is considered safe but hard to recycle.
#5 PP: Polypropylene, used in most Rubbermaid, deli soup, syrup and yogurt containers, straws and other clouded plastic containers, including baby bottles. It is considered safe but hard to recycle. (See Update as of Nov 14 2008)
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#6 PS: Polystyrene, used in Styrofoam food trays, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, carry-out containers and opaque plastic cutlery. Styrene can leach from polystyrene and is toxic to the brain and nervous system. It also has been found to affect red blood cells, liver, kidneys and stomach in animal studies. It is hard to recycle.
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#7 Other: Usually polycarbonate, used in most plastic baby bottles, 5-gallon water bottles, “sport” water bottles, metal food can liners, clear plastic “sippy” cups and some clear plastic cutlery. New bio-based plastics may also be labeled #7. Polycarbonate can leach Bisphenol A, a chemical that mimics the action of the human hormone estrogen. It was found to stimulate prostate cancer, produce ovarian dysfunction, genetic damage, etc. (see Baby Bottles free of BPA).
• Avoid using plastic in microwave. Any plastic can leach harmful chemicals when heated. Avoid to warm food even in plastic labeled as “microwave safe”. “Microwave safe” does not mean that there is no leaching of chemicals.
• Use alternatives to plastics whenever possible. Bring a glass container with you at the restaurants. Use stainless steel or glass to store your food.
• Buy food in glass containers. However, pay attention that phtalates were found in lids of glass jars.
• Do not reuse bottles or food containers made for single using.
• Avoid plastic cutlery and dinnerware.
• Avoid plastics that are not recyclable (3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
• Buy bio-based plastic alternatives if available and if you really need it.
• Get rid of all plastic from your kitchen - like me.
For some shopping suggestions look here.
As two of the readers suggested there is no plastic that is truly safe or good for us. The idea of the list is to help you chose between plastics in case you have no current alternative. My 1st impulse it to go for effortless changes instead of radical ones; there's always a risk of falling off the wagon when you try cold-turkey plastic free life. However, the best solution is to avoid them as much as you can.