A Complete Guide to Reusing Plastic Bottles

reusing plastic bottles
Dr. Geoffrey Harris, MD

You aren’t supposed to reuse the plastic bottles that water and soda come in. These bottles, which typically have a plastic identification code (PIC) of 1, are usually made from a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, PET, or PETE. PET can be difficult to clean and is somewhat porous. Bacteria can easily grow on the surface of PET containers, especially after it is covered with film from our lips and backwash. While PET is rather durable, it can begin to degrade, particularly after being exposed to heat, sunlight, or prolonged use.

Furthermore, chemicals that are used in producing plastics can migrate into foods or liquids during use. Some types of plastic (PIC #3, #6, and #7) are more likely to release harmful chemicals, while others (#2, #4, and #5) are more durable and able to stand up to repeated use. When used correctly, the amount of chemicals that leach from any plastic is minimal. However, when plastics are used incorrectly, higher levels of chemicals can be released.

That said, it is the appropriate use of plastic containers that I want to focus on.

Generally, safe, reusable plastic containers should have a #2, #4 or #5. Recycle these containers when the plastic cracks, scuffs, scratches, or becomes cloudy or discolored. These containers are not designed to last forever and need to be replaced over time. Finally, avoid exposing these containers to excessive heat or sunlight.

Tips for Using Plastic Containers

Do not reuse commercial soda or water bottles. They are designed for one time use and should not be refilled. As I mentioned, our lips leave a film on the bottle that bacteria can thrive in, and the narrow neck makes the bottle difficult to clean. If the water or soda in the container has a plastic taste or smell, then the plastic has begun to degrade, and the container should be recycled. Ultraviolet light from the sun, excessive heat, and pressure can speed up the degradation process.

If you use Lexan or polycarbonate bottles (#7) while hiking, do not fill them with hot liquids. Clean with a mild detergent in warm water. Do not use hot water, harsh detergents, or bleach on a polycarbonate container. If you want to carry hot liquids like soup, tea, or coffee, get a double-walled stainless steel thermos or travel mug.

If you are someone who likes to have a reusable water bottle that you can refill, choose a stainless steel container. An aluminum bottle is okay if it has an interior enamel liner. You can also get a stainless steel travel mug with a stainless steel interior. A porcelain or glass mug is also a great way to drink water throughout your day.

Polycarbonate baby bottles are probably okay with cool liquids, but if you are giving your baby warm formula then look for bisphenol A-free bottles, which are available at most retailers.

Do not use plastic containers in a microwave oven or conventional oven unless the container specifically indicates it is suitable for this purpose.

Do not defrost meat on the plastic container that comes from the grocery. Remove the frozen meat from the container and place on a microwave safe container before defrosting.

Once a kitchenware plastic container becomes cracked, cloudy, or scratched, recycle it and get a new container.

Once a plastic container has been used to store detergents, chemicals, or non-food items, it should not be used to store food.

Take-away food containers are designed for one time use and should be recycled after use and not reused for storing food.

Remember, the best way to avoid harmful chemicals from plastics is to minimize your usage of plastic. Slowly replace your plastic storage containers and reusable water bottles with stainless steel, glass, or ceramic containers. Avoid aluminum unless it has an interior, enamel coating to prevent aluminum from leaching into your food or water.

3 Last Things to Think About

Water from water coolers is generally stored in large polycarbonate containers. Unfortunately, we don’t often know how those containers are stored, cleaned, or treated. Furthermore, those containers are reused numerous times. Filtered tap water from home is probably safer if you are trying to avoid chemicals from plastics.

Water from commercial water bottles does not have to meet the same requirements that municipal tap water must meet. Bottled water is not controlled by the EPA, which requires tap water to be thoroughly tested and controlled. The water in your water bottle doesn’t have to meet these stringent guidelines.

Finally, the environmental effect of bottled water is enormous. The plastic is manufactured from crude oil and the used containers take up a large amount of space in our landfills. When these bottles are appropriately recycled, they cannot be used to create new water bottles. The plastic is not safe enough to be used for food containers and is typically used to make plastic parking stops, park benches, or synthetic clothing like fleece. It is also frequently recycled through incineration. The most environmentally friendly approach to getting your 8 to 10 glasses of water everyday is to drink tap water or filtered tap water from a reusable glass, ceramic, or stainless steel container.

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