What do the numbers on plastics mean?

Have you ever looked at the bottom part of plastic bottles, plastic containers, and other plastic products? Did you notice the numbers indicated therein and wonder what those numbers mean?

The number contained inside a triangle is a code. Such a code is used to identify which plastic product may be recycled or reused.

Plastic products have been useful to humanity for a long time now. However, with usefulness comes a long-term problematic effect to the environment, especially if these products are not disposed of properly.

In the municipality of Los Baños, ordinances are in place to lend support to a national law on solid waste management by regulating the use of plastics and non-environment-friendly products.  Municipal Ordinance No. 2008-752 bans the use of plastic bags on dry goods and regulates the use of plastic bags on wet goods. It also prohibits the use of styrofoam and prescribes penalties for violations. Six years later, this ordinance was expanded through  Municipal Ordinance No. 2014-1316, also know as “The Expanded Plastic Ordinance of the Municipality of Los Baños,” which prohibits the use of plastic bags, plastic drinking straws, plastic cups, plastic plates, plastic spoon and fork, and styrofoam.

According the Philippine Plastic Industry Association Inc. (PPIA), the municipality of Los Baños was one of the first municipalities in the Philippines to regulate the use of plastic products to be able to address the growing rate of environmental problems caused by improper waste management.  With the municipality’s step towards reducing plastic usage many other towns and cities followed suit including San Pablo, Luisiana, and Santa Cruz in Laguna Province, as well as Muntinlupa City in Metro Manila.

But while the use of some plastic products may be regulated, use of plastic containers for food and other commodities cannot be completely eliminated, hence the need for proper management. 

A report by the United Nations (UN) says that 300 million tons of plastic waste is being produced every year, and half of this volume is manufactured for single use. Only 9% has been recycled.

In communities, the problem of growing volume of plastic trash can be addressed through promoting greater awareness about proper waste segregation. People need to know how use of plastic products can be reduced, which plastic products can be reused, and which ones can be recycled. In such a situation, knowledge about the numbers in triangles becomes all  the more important. 

The numbers printed on the underside of plastic products are called the resin identification code or RIC. They range from 1 to 7, existing with the sole purpose of identifying the type of plastic used. According to Greg Seaman (2012), even though most plastic containers bear the universal recycling symbol, not all plastics are recyclable or even reusable. 

Seven codes

RIC 1 means that the product is made with polyethylene terephthalate or PET. Such products are meant for single use only, hence the name “single-use plastics,” like those used for water bottles. Using these products for more than once allows the growth of bacteria, which is not good for human health. In addition, the quality of the material is not good for heat exposure. PET products should be recycled but not reused.

RIC 2 means that the product is made from high density polyethylene or  HDPE. Such products are used as shampoo containers, milk jugs, and non-carbonated drink bottles. toys. The same material is also used for making plastic toys. It is considered as one of the safest forms of plastic. Unlike PET, HDPE does not break down if exposed to sunlight; thus, it is weather-resistant. Plastics coded as 2 are both reusable and recyclable.

The next is RIC 3, which represents products that are made from polyvinyl chloride, otherwise known as PVC.  Products containing this plastic material are soft and are suitable for cooking oil bottles and clear plastic food wrapping. However, it is being labelled as “poison plastic” for containing various toxins thus are not recyclable and should not be reused for food.

Next is RIC 4, which is for low-density polyethylene or LDPE. Included in the list of materials that are made of LDPE are plastic grocery bags, which are mostly banned in Los Baños and other places that have strict plastic usage ordinance. Other products include bubble wraps, food wraps, bread bags, and garbage bags. Such plastics are relatively safe for use but if not disposed off properly can cause clog water drains, which is one major cause of flooding.  LDPE products are not always recyclable but are often reusable.

The number 5 as RIC represents products made from polypropylene (PP). It is one of the safest plastic to be used for food application. PP is used to make food containers, bottle caps, kitchenware, microwavable plastic containers, and medicine containers. These products are guaranteed safe for reuse but not often for recycle purposes.

RIC 6 is for products made from polystyrene or PS. These materials are often lightweight and have various uses. Drinking cups, styrofoam, egg cartons, and foam packaging are the common products made from PS.  This kind of plastic is weak and can easily disintegrate into small parts. People should exercise care when handling and using such products; excessive and irresponsible use contributes to water pollution. Experts say that many bodies of water often contain bits of PS plastic that are often ingested by fishes. PS is often reused and seldom recycled.

Lastly, RIC 7 means that the product is made from miscellaneous plastics, like polyamide, polycarbonate, polyactide and others. These types are not for food application. Number 7 plastics are used to make baby bottles, sip cups, water cooler bottles and car parts. It’s not for reuse.

Knowing, doing, caring

These plastic codes cannot be ignored, it is placed there to elicit informed actions from people. However, this is not what is happening, given the many unfortunate environmental problems many communities face. Yes, it is easier to dispose without properly segregating what is thrown, but being mere constituents of this planet mean that people should be accountable for their actions. And just by knowing what, why and where to dispose these synthetic materials is a huge leap towards a somehow cleaner and hopefully greener environment. 

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