Make Your Clothes Last Longer with Good Laundry Habits

Last updated on January 28, 2024.

Tan wicker Laundry Basket with colorful Clothes on a White Background.
Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Have you ever struggled to figure out how to do the laundry without hurting the environment? Do you want your clothes to last longer? It is a challenge, one I’ve been figuring out for years. Here are ways you can practice environmentally friendly laundry habits that will allow you to wear your wardrobe for a long time.

First, Wash Your Clothes Less

Many sustainable fashion experts tell us to launder as little as possible. “If a garment has had no contact with sweat and isn’t stained, you can wear it multiple times before you need to wash it. Repeated laundering breaks down the fibers and fades colors, making garments look old and worn more quickly.”1 You can wear some clothes several times before they need washing. There are ways to “freshen” clothes without washing them. Any time you can avoid washing clothing saves time, energy, money, and water. It also protects our water from pollutants and chemicals. 

“Americans in particular overwash their clothing and rely on machine washing instead of steaming or airing out their clothes, which shortens the life span of what we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Concious Closet2 

In 2014, the CEO of Levi Strauss, Chip Bergh, said that jeans should never be machine washed, admitting that he hadn’t machine washed his jeans in more than a year. When he does wash them, he handwashes and hangs them up to air dry. Bergh argued that not using the washing machine keeps jeans in mint condition and is better for the environment.3 

Washing Our Clothes Sheds Microfibers

A 2016 Plymouth University study found that more than 700,000 fibers were released during a thirteen-pound load of laundry, with fleece releasing the most.4 In 2017, a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from laundering synthetic fabrics.5

Michiel Roscam Abbing, author of Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution, noted that fleece, as in a fleece jacket or those cheap $4 blankets at big box stores, is one of the biggest villains. That fabric is made from used water bottles, the clear ones with the #1 RIC symbol. While recycling is important, washing fleece releases large numbers of microfibers into water, and eventually the ocean.6

Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microfibers. These fibers do not decompose or biodegrade. When the microfibers travel through pipes to a wastewater treatment plant, “the vast majority of fibers (somewhere between 75 and 99 percent) settle into the sludge…sludge from wastewater treatment plants can be used as agricultural fertilizer, and it is slathered…onto fields.” From there it can get into the soil, groundwater, or grazing animals that are later consumed by people.7

“Tiny particles of plastic have been found everywhere — from the deepest place on the planet, the Mariana Trench, to the top of Mount Everest. And now more and more studies are finding that microplastics, defined as plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters across, are also in our bodies…In recent years, microplastics have been documented in all parts of the human lung, in maternal and fetal placental tissues, in human breast milk and in human blood.”8

Close-up of a stainless steel front loading washing machine, with off-white towels going in.
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.

How to Stop Microfibers from Entering Water Systems

The most obvious solution is to stop washing so many synthetic fabrics by buying fewer synthetic clothing items. For those items you do own already, there are a few solutions:

      • The Guppyfriend bag is designed to prevent microfiber pollution. It is a zippered bag that you place synthetic clothing into and then put into the washing machine with everything else. The microfibers that shed collect at the edges of the bag, which you can scoop out and throw in the garbage. This prevents the microfibers from getting into the water. Alexander Nolte, co-founder of Guppyfriend, said that “the bag is designed in a way which prevents fibers from breaking in the first place. So, it’s not about what you find in the bag, it’s what you do not find in the bag. Whatever you wash inside the bag has a longer lifetime.”9

        Guppyfriend bag, white bag with blue wording along zipper.
        I bought one several years ago. While I like it and still use it, my solution has been to buy less synthetic clothing. Unfortunately, Guppyfriend bags are not big enough for jackets or blankets.
      • The Cora Ball is a ball that you toss into the washing machine with your clothes. It helps prevent shedding and collects microfibers that you can remove and throw into the garbage. I have not personally tried this yet.
      • PlanetCare is a washing machine attachment with filters that the company claims to collect 90% of microfibers. Each filter comes with reusable cartridges that you replace once they’re full of microfibers. You can return the cartridges to the company so they can refurbish them for future use. I haven’t tried this yet either.

While these solutions are thoughtful and probably work well, they come at your own expense. Does it make sense to buy cheap clothing only to have to spend money trying not to pollute the water with them?

“In 2017, Greenpeace found microfibers in the waters of Antarctica.”10

Close-up of a white washing machine with a PlanetCare filter attached to its side.
Photo by PlanetCare on Unsplash.

Do Laundry Better

I am not a laundry expert, but I certainly do a lot of laundry for my family! Many of the tips in the following section came from sustainable clothing writers, including Zoe Edwards (Mend It, Wear It, Love It!), Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald (Modern Mending), Elizabeth L. Cline (The Conscious Closet), and Sophie Benson (Sustainable Wardrobe).

Washing:

Except for undergarments or sweaty clothes, wash clothes less and not after every wear. Airing out will sometimes be enough to remove odors (like from a restaurant or campfire). If it’s only a spot that’s dirty, spot clean with a damp cloth and mild soap (like hand soap). This is better for the garment than a full wash. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that undergarments or “anything that sits next to your crotch, armpits, feet…and comes into close contact with sweat and skin is a good candidate for regular washing.” Clothing worn over undergarments and clothing that doesn’t cling to your body can be washed far less frequently.

Sometimes the cheapest clothing requires the most expensive care. “Polyester, nylon, and blended fibers with a heavy percentage of synthetics attract odors, meaning so-called easy-care synthetics have to be washed more often.” Wearing more natural materials can help you reduce washing.11 

Wash items inside out to reduce wear and pilling; fasten zippers and undo buttons before washing to prevent damage. Turn delicate clothes inside out.

Always separate lights and darks.

Empty and check pockets – especially children’s clothing!

Use cold water – it is gentler on clothes, prevents shrinkage, saves energy, and is better for the environment. According to Energy Star, heating water accounts for about 90 percent of the energy used when running a washer, so the less hot water used, the more energy saved.12 Also, be sure to not overload the machine, because clothes need to be able to move around.

Neutralizing odors:

You can neutralize odors by hanging something outside or in the sunlight for a few hours. Hanging items in the shower allows the steam to remove odors and can release wrinkles too.

“For garments that need a little deodorizing, lightly spritz the fabric with vodka to kill off odor-causing bacteria; just don’t use it on delicate fabrics like silk. Direct sunshine is also nature’s disinfectant, keeping clothing free from dust mites and odors. Expose each side of the garment for thirty minutes.” –Brigette Allen and Christine Wong, Living Without Plastic13

3 Girls' dresses (left to right: pink, white, yellow) on an outdoor clothesline, sunshiny blue sky and green tree background.
Photo by Jill Wellington from Pixabay.

Drying:

The heat and friction from dryer heat weaken and break down fibers, eventually ruining your clothes. It also causes shrinking and fading. Air drying, especially outdoors, is the best method. You can use dryer racks if you don’t have a clothesline. The sun acts as a disinfectant, whitener, and odor remover. But even indoor air drying on a drying rack is better for your clothes. You can add half a cup of distilled white vinegar in the rinse cycle as a fabric softener, but avoid conventional products. Read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets.

When you handwash, hang lightweight items up to drip dry, but lay heavier articles on a towel so that they retain their shape and don’t stretch.

“Hanging clothes outside on a line or drying rack, whenever possible, will do wonders for the longevity of your clothing, and significantly lessen their environmental impact.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!14

The energy use of dryers is enormous! “Clothes dryers consume more energy than any other household appliance. In the United States, dryers consume 60 billion kilowatt-hours of energy per year.” In many other countries, clothes dryers are not a common household appliance. Only one-third of the British own one.15

“Air-drying clothes reduces the average household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds per year.” -National Geographic16

A dryer rack full of colorful clothes, with brick wall and greenery in background.
I use dryer racks at home. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Clothing Care Labels:

Read clothing labels but use your best judgment. Cline wrote, “The problem with care labels is that they describe the washing conditions a garment can withstand, rather than the ideal care methods. A care label’s instructions, from advertisements on heat settings to the use of bleach, are a garment’s maximum tolerance, not a recommendation.” For example, “a recommendation to ‘machine wash warm’ doesn’t indicate that a warm wash is required, only that your garment can withstand warm water without shrinking.”17 Below is a handy chart that explains the symbols on clothing labels:

Wash Care symbols chart, black and white.
Wash Care Symbols Vectors by Lia Aramburu on Vecteezy.

Dry Cleaning

Anything marked ‘dry clean only’ needs to be handled with care, and special items, such as mattress covers, and outdoor or technical gear usually have very specific care guidelines that you should follow.18 Avoid buying ‘dry clean only’ clothing as much as possible. The cleaning process uses a lot of chemicals, some toxic, that end up in our water and environment. Also, plastic-film dry-cleaning bags add 300 million pounds of waste to US landfills each year.19

White and aqua iron standing, on a gray ironing board with a white button down shirt on it. Aqua wall background.
Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash.

Ironing:

Ironing can damage clothing over time, so taking clothing out of the washer as soon as possible is the best way to prevent wrinkling. If you do have to iron, check the clothing label and match your iron setting to the correct setting for that fabric, so that you don’t damage it. Also, iron inside out or use a pressing cloth when possible to further protect your clothing. Sophie Benson wrote that if you iron in batches, “it’s best to order your ironing pile from coolest to hottest, that way you’re not switching between temperatures and there’s no risk of accidentally putting a hot iron on a delicate fabric.”20

Read my article on using an ironing mat if you don’t have an ironing board.

Stains:

Treat stains as soon as possible, as the longer they sit the better they set. Use a small amount of laundry detergent and cold water to remove the stain. Avoid over-rubbing because that can discolor clothing permanently. I personally use a stain stick that is quite effective, and I’ve had the same one for years!

Buncha Farmers stain stick with green packaging.
Buncha Farmers stain stick. This is the one I use but there are many brands out there.

For oily stains, blot up liquid by sprinkling baking soda or cornstarch, brush off, then apply liquid detergent to the stain and let it sit for a few hours.

Never tumble dry clothing that is potentially stained, since it will permanently set the stain. Hang dry first so you can see if the stain is visible.

If you cannot remove a stain, consider dyeing the garment. This is a great way to extend the life of an article of clothing. Natural dyes have a lower environmental impact. Even tie-dying is a good way to revive old clothing! If there is a small mark or stain, consider covering it with some simple, discreet embroidery. Use online tutorials to find simple flower or shape motifs.21

Laundry Detergents

Commercial detergents can be laden with chemicals and toxins that you should avoid. Plus companies package detergents in large plastic bottles. However, DIY laundry detergents can be tricky to make and use, and are not always recommended. Since this is a huge topic on its own, please read my article on Non-Toxic and Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents.

Your Clothes Will Last Longer

Our clothing and other textiles will last a lot longer if we take better care of them, especially when it comes to laundry care. And we can be better stewards of the environment. I hope this article helps you! What tips do you have? Feel free to leave me a comment. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Guppyfriend bags website.*

Cora Ball website.*

PlanetCare website.*

Video, “Your Laundry Habits Affect the World,” Elizabeth L. Cline, Penguin Random House, November 13, 2019.

*I do not necessarily endorse these products and I do not get paid to mention these.

Footnotes:

Non-Toxic & Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents

Laundry basket with clothes on a coffee table, couch and sleeping cat in background, warm lighting.
Photo by Sean Freese on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

If you read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets, then it won’t surprise you that commercial laundry detergents also often contain harmful, toxic ingredients. The chemicals and fragrances are harmful to the human body as well as the environment. Additionally, many detergents come in some form of plastic container, whether it’s a bottle, plastic bag, or “pod.”

Homemade or DIY laundry detergents sound like a great alternative, but in practice, I have not found that to be the case. My conclusion is that while I cannot recommend a specific brand or set of ingredients, I can tell you what to avoid. Following are my findings.

DIY Laundry Detergents

Various ingredients in boxes and bottles with a Kirk's Castille bar of soap and a measuring cup with soap shavings.
Photo by Kim F on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

The photo above is not my own but still a familiar scene. I have tried many homemade DIY laundry detergent recipes from bloggers, authors, and environmentalists. Most homemade laundry detergents combine baking soda, washing soda, and/or borax, as well as a cleaning agent, typically grated bar soap. I even tried buying laundry bar soap that you dissolve in water and then use as a liquid detergent. But all had poor results. Our clothes either had an odor or what looked like grease stains on them. Our clothing, towels, and sheets just weren’t getting…clean.

Close-up of a laundry bar, brown with white speckles.
Laundry bar. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Laundry bar dissolving in a white bucket of water.
The laundry bar dissolving in a reused white bucket. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Then I discovered that soap residue can actually trap dirt and oils in textiles. Kathryn Kellogg, author of 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste, advises against DIY laundry detergents. “Most homemade laundry detergent is really laundry soap, which can clog your washing machine, void the warranty, and ruin your clothes.”1 The soap doesn’t come out because modern washing machine agitators are not as tough on clothing as older machines were. According to Kellogg, a true laundry detergent does not contain fats and oils.2

Soap Nuts

Green glass dish with decorative edge featuring orange and green flowers, soap nuts piled on the dish.
Photo by Khadija Dawn Carryl on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

Soapnuts, which are actually berries, are the fruit of the Sapindus Mukorossi tree, which grows in India and Nepal. The husks, or shell, of the fruit “contains plant saponin, a completely natural and gentle soap that has been used for centuries to clean skin and clothes. Saponin works as a surfactant, breaking the surface tension of the water and creating a lather that lifts dirt and grease…this is just one example of how nature offers many solutions for…plastic-free living,” wrote Sanda Ann Harris, author of Say Goodbye To Plastic: A Survival Guide for Plastic-Free Living.3 Soapnuts are compostable after use, so they create no waste.

I tried these, excitedly! I followed instructions from myplasticfreelife.com that said to boil the soapnuts into a liquid, and then use the liquid as laundry detergent.

Soapnuts boiling in a pot of water.
Soapnuts cooking in a pot. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I also tried putting them straight into the washing machine. But they didn’t work great all of the time, and I often had to rewash my clothes. Kathryn Kellogg wrote that she also does not recommend soap nuts. “Both of these items contain saponin or soap. The soap will cause buildup on fabric, preventing it from being absorbent, and the residue can cause skin irritation. Historically, people used soap to clean their clothes, but they washed their clothes by hand. The agitation process was harsh enough for the soap to wash clean. Our modern machines aren’t as rigorous so the soap clings to the fabric.”4 

Angled photo of laundry detergent bottles on a store shelf, Ajax and Fab brands most visible.
Photo by Pixel Drip on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Commercial Laundry Detergents

Over the years I have tried all manner of commercial laundry detergents, both powdered and liquid. Powders don’t seem to dissolve well unless I use hot water, and I wash almost everything in cold water. Liquids work better, but their quality runs the gamut. I still don’t have a single brand that I can recommend or that I even buy consistently. But I can tell you what to avoid in detergents.

Plastic Bottles

Plastic blue laundry detergent or fabric softener bottle, lying in a sand dune.
Photo by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay.

Almost all liquid detergents come in plastic bottles. Also, liquid laundry detergents are 60 to 90 percent water! This means we are shipping huge amounts of water in plastic jugs all across the country, which creates more carbon emissions. This seems wasteful!

Worse, even though most laundry jugs are ‘recyclable,’ they don’t often actually get recycled. Humans have only recycled 9% of plastics ever created. Brands like Seventh Generation use 80% recycled plastic in their bottles. While they are also recyclable, there’s no guarantee the bottle will get recycled. It’s best practice to stay away from bottles if you can.

In Part 11 of my Packaging Series, you can read about brands that use different types of packaging, and even some that offer refillable options.

Toxic Ingredients

There are lots of chemicals in most commercial laundry detergents. Those scents are a combination of hundreds of chemicals, many that scientists have linked to illness and disease.

Person pouring laundry detergent into a washing machine, from a blue laundry detergent bottle.
Photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels.

Phthalates

These are in the fragrances of detergents, so you’ll believe your clothes are clean because they smell good. They are a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, meaning they interfere with our hormone systems and fertility. They are associated with rashes, asthma, allergies, learning and behavioral difficulties in children, and an increased risk of cancer. These are not regulated because companies use the term “fragrance” in the ingredients list under the guise of propriety.

Surfactants

Many laundry detergents use surfactants like petroleum distillate or naphtha because they boost the cleaning power of laundry detergents. However, they can cause respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation, nervous system problems, hormone disruption, and sometimes cancer. Many are also toxic to aquatic life. Other surfactants include quaternium-15, diethanolamine, nonlphenol ethoxylate, and linear alkyl benzene sulfonates.5

Phenol is one more surfactant that can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and nervous system. “Severe exposure can cause liver and/or kidney damage, skin burns, tremor, convulsions, and twitching.”6

The European Union (EU) and Canada banned Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs), but they are allowed in the U.S. These are also endocrine disruptors and may cause cancer. They can lead to extreme aquatic toxicity in the environment.

1,4-dioxane 

This is a known human carcinogen and neurotoxin that is always present in trace amounts when ethoxylated surfactants are used because 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct. “1,4-dioxane is never listed on labels because it’s not an intentionally added ingredient, but there are some easy tricks to avoid it. Ethoxylated surfactants usually follow a few naming conventions. If the ingredient ends in “-eth”, such as laureth-6 or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ceteareth or steareth, it’s ethoxylated.”7 Sodium lauryl sulfate is another one to steer clear of. 1,4-dioxane is also a common water contaminant.

Phosphates & EDTA

Manufacturers use Phosphates and EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) “to make detergents more effective in hard water, and to help prevent dirt from settling back on clothes when they’re washing.” These chemicals cause environmental damage, especially in waterways. They also cause algae blooms that damage ecosystems.8 Phosphate-free products are important to help reduce eutrophication, a process that causes algae to grow uncontrollably and cause the death of all life in bodies of water.

Others

Companies use Formaldehyde as a low-cost preservative and antibacterial agent. It can irritate the eyes and lungs and is a suspected carcinogen.9

Dyes cause allergies and rashes, almost all are endocrine disruptors, and many are carcinogens.10

Benzyl acetate is toxic to skin, the nervous system, the kidneys,11 and has been linked to pancreatic cancer.

Dichlorobenzene is a water contaminant and has a highly toxic effect on aquatic life. They are carcinogenic and toxic to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system.

Laundry Pods

Single Laundry pod, orange, white, and blue liquid detergent in a plastic sealed pod.
Photo by Erik Binggeser on Unsplash.

Laundry detergent pods are purely convenience items. They contain concentrated amounts of detergent encapsulated in a “dissolvable” pod made of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA or PVOH). PVA is a synthetic, petroleum-based polymeric plastic. When marketers say it “dissolves” in water, they mean that the plastic breaks down into smaller plastic particles, called microplastics. The microplastics are discharged as part of the wastewater, then enter our water systems, and eventually end up in our bodies.

“Dissolvable” detergent sheets

I tried laundry detergent eco sheets because they are indeed free of huge plastic bottles. While I’ve always been leery of laundry pods because they feel like plastic, I assumed these were different. However, I discovered that these also contain PVA (polyvinyl alcohol).

Again, PVA is a plastic, and while it is designed to dissolve, that doesn’t mean it disappears. A study cited by the company Blueland “suggests that over 75% of PVA persists in our waterways and our soil after it dissolves in laundry and dishwashing machines, flows through wastewater and ultimately back into our environment.”12

In fact, in November 2022, Blueland, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and a large group of other nonprofit organizations filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to readdress PVA and its effects. “This petition requests that the EPA conduct requisite human and environmental health and safety testing for Polyvinyl Alcohol, also known as  PVA or PVOH as it is used in consumer-packaged goods, with particular attention to the use of PVA in laundry and dishwasher detergent pods and sheets. The petition also requests that until such testing is completed, the EPA remove polyvinyl alcohol from its Safer Choice Program in order to curb plastic pollution.”13 Unfortunately, the EPA denied those requests.14

Avoid any laundry pods or dissolvable sheets that contain polyvinyl alcohol (PVA).

White washing machine with blue clothing in, door open.
Image by taraghb from Pixabay.

Powdered Detergents

Two Meliora cardboard and metal containers, lavender laundry powder at left (white and purple lable), and oxygen brightener at right (blue and white label).
Meliora powdered detergents, shipped plastic-free! Photo by Marie Cullis.

In general, I have trouble getting our clothes clean with laundry powder in our washing machine. I’m not sure if this is because I wash everything in cold water, or if we have hard water, or just an old washing machine. So when I do wash something in warm or hot water, I use Meliora laundry powder. I also use this laundry powder for all of my handwashing. I ordered the refillable containers on my first order, and the refills arrive in a recyclable brown paper bag. These products do not contain toxic ingredients or fragrances, and the company lists all of their ingredients on the packaging and its website. I recommend this brand (I do not get paid to write that nor am I an affiliate of the company).

Protecting Your Health & the Environment

While this may all seem overcomplicated, it doesn’t have to be. Just do your best. Steering clear of toxic ingredients and avoiding plastic are the goals. Avoid using chlorine bleach and “brighteners” as these are strong chemicals that are toxic to humans and the environment. Find a solution that works for you and stick with that. Sometimes it takes a while.

Feel free to comment on what works for you! I’d love for you to share. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

The Chemicals in Plastic and Why it Matters, Part 2

Last updated on May 21, 2023.

Colorful plastic litter organized by color on a beach.
Image by Filmbetrachter from Pixabay

Plastics are made from chemicals and petroleum, which you read about in Part 1 of this series. Today, I want to tell you about the chemical contents of plastics according to resin code, the number on the bottom surrounded by a triangle. More importantly, I want to inform you of the ways they may be toxic to our health.

Resin Identification Codes (RICs)

Resin symbol for #1 plastic, or PET.
Image by OpenIcons from Pixabay.

The plastics industry created RICs in 1988 as part of their campaign to boost plastic’s image. They even lobbied to have state legislatures adopt them. But this little symbol on almost all plastic packaging is misleading. Many assume that the recycling symbol or RIC means that a package is automatically recyclable. However, that is not true, it actually only refers to the type of plastic resin used.

To reduce confusion, ASTM, the organization that regulates the RIC system, updated the symbol from the chasing arrows to a solid triangle in 2013. “However, manufacturers aren’t required to change their equipment to incorporate the new symbol, which is why you still see the arrows on many plastic products,” according to an article on Oceano.org.1 So it’s still easy for people who don’t know to mistake the RIC as a recycling symbol versus an industry tag for the plastic.

Graphic comparing the types of recycling symbols used with RICs.

A clear plastic PET food container showing the updated symbol, a numbe 1 inside of triangle.
Example of a plastic PET food container showing the updated symbol. Photo by Marie Cullis.

“Thanks to the intelligent strategy that the plastic industry came up with in the early 1980s of imprinting a recycling code on the most commonly consumed plastic items, a large majority of consumers think that the bulk of the plastics they consume are recyclable and actually do get recycled through their local curbside recycling program. In reality, only a small percentage of the contents of a recycling box is recycled.”2

The RICs / Types of Plastics

Please note: There are 7 resin identification codes, but that does not mean there are only 7 types of plastics. There are, in fact, tens of thousands of chemical combinations.3

Resin Identification Coding System graphic
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Next, let’s look at the 7 RICs types, what they are used for, their characteristics, their chemical contents, and their potential toxicity. Note that this is not an exhaustive list; nor is each category exhaustive in the standard products or characteristics.

“Despite how useful these additives are in the functionality of polymer products, their potential to contaminate soil, air, water and food is widely documented…These additives can potentially migrate and undesirably lead to human exposure via e.g. food contact materials, such as packaging.”4

#1 PET/PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate

Standard products: Water bottles, soda bottles, salad dressing bottles, food containers such as cooking oil and peanut butter, wrinkle-proof clothing, fleece blankets, padding in pillows and comforters, carpeting, other polyester fabrics.

About: PET is the most valuable type of plastic and the most recycled. There are typically two types: one is made with a blow molding machine; the other is thermoform which is made by heating a plastic sheet until pliable and then molded into a specific shape. The main difference is in molecular weight. Higher molecular weight items, such as bottles and jugs made from blow molding, are more valuable than their thermoform counterparts. Thermoform, though more difficult to sell, is often recycled into carpeting.5

Chemical content: “A chemical called antimony trioxide is used as a catalyst and flame retardant in making PET, and this antimony additive is considered a possible carcinogen.” The amount in one single water bottle is minimal, but leaching increases with heat. Think of those water bottles stored in the car during the summer. “There is research showing that PET may leach phthalates too, even though the plastics industry says that phthalates are not required to make PET.”6 Regardless, think about switching to metal or glass containers whenever possible.

Close-up of clear blue water bottles
Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay.

#2 HDPE: High-density Polyethylene

Standard products: Milk jugs, water bottles, juice, bottles, bleach, dish and laundry detergent bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, cleaner containers, over-the-counter medicine bottles, cereal box liners, Tyvek home insulation, plastic-wood composites, snowboards, 3D printing filament, and wire covering. It is even used in some plastic surgery procedures.

About: This is one of the most widely used plastics because of its versatility. It is strong, flexible, cost-effective, moisture-resistant, and resistant to most chemical solvents. It has high tensile strength and has both a high-impact resistance and melting point. “The polyethylene polymer has the simplest basic chemical structure of any polymer, making it easy to process and thus extremely popular for low value, high volume applications.”7

Chemical content: While this is considered a ‘safer’ plastic for food and drink use, there is evidence that these release endocrine-disrupting chemicals, especially when exposed to UV. “The main leaching culprits are estrogen-mimicking nonylphenols and octylphenols, which are added to polyethylene as stabilizers and plasticizers.”8 Those chemicals disrupt the body’s hormones and can cause cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.

“Nearly four pounds of petroleum are required for every two pounds of #2 (HDPE) plastic produced.” -Tom Szaky, Terracycle9

Angled photo of plastic milk jugs at the supermarket.
Milk jugs are typically #2 HDPE. Photo by Marie Cullis.

#3 PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride

Standard products: Think all vinyl products. Shower curtains, medical bags, medical tubing, shrink wrap, children’s toys, binders, school supplies, plastic furniture, garden hoses, vinyl clothing and outerwear, wire and cable insulation, vinyl records, carpet backing, flooring, credit cards, clamshell packaging, plumbing pipes, vinyl siding, window frames, fences, decking, other construction materials.

About: “PVC can take on a staggering variety of personalities – rigid, filmy, flexible, leathery – thanks to the ease with which it can be blended with other chemicals.”10 PVC is versatile as it can be adapted to many applications depending on the plasticizing additives. It is strong and resistant to moisture and abrasion. It can be produced clear or colored. About three-quarters of all vinyl produced goes into construction applications.

Chemical content: PVC is known as the poison plastic because it leaches toxins for its entire life cycle and should be avoided whenever possible. Vinyl is manufactured by polymerizing a chemical called vinyl chloride. It can contain up to 55% additives, mainly phthalates. The chemicals it may release during its lifetime include cancer-causing dioxins, endocrine-disrupting phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), lead, mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals. “The problem with PVC is that its base monomer building block is vinyl chloride, which is highly toxic and unstable, thus requiring lots of additives to calm it down and make it usable. But even in its final ‘stabilized’ form, PVC is not very stable.”11 The additives leach out and you can inhale and ingest them.

White PVC pipes stacked at a manufacturer or store.
PVC pipes, photo by Dennis Hill on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

#4 LDPE: Low-density Polyethylene

Standard products: Film applications like bags, such as those used for bread, shopping, dry-cleaning, newspapers, frozen foods, produce, and garbage. Also used for shrink wraps, linings for cartons and cups, container lids, some squeeze bottles, orthotics, and prosthetics.

About: LDPE is a soft, flexible, lightweight plastic material, known for its low-temperature flexibility, toughness, and corrosion resistance. But it is not recyclable in any practical sense. Citing data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one large recycling corporation noted that “the overwhelming majority of products made from LDPE end up in landfills…Dumping tons of LDPE in landfills can have devastating consequences…plastic buried in landfills can leach into the soil and introduce chemicals into the groundwater.” They can threaten marine life in coastal areas, and “lightweight plastic bags can be blown great distances by the wind, ending up in bodies of water where animals eat them or become tangled in them.”12 Plastic bags causes huge environmental problems.

Chemical content: These can leach some of the same chemicals as #2 HDPE plastic. It is a thermoplastic made from the polymerization of ethylene. Ethylene is considered a building block of plastic, but it is highly flammable and reactive. It is created by Ethane Cracker Plants, which use an environmentally questionable process to extract the ethane to make ethylene. While difficult to avoid, steer clear of this plastic whenever possible.

Angled photo of the bread aisle at the supermarket.
Bread bags are typically #4 LDPE. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Blue plastic cap from a gallon milk or water jug, #4 LDPE plastic.
Blue plastic cap from a gallon water jug, #4 LDPE plastic. Photo by Marie Cullis.

#5 PP: Polypropylene

Standard products: Polypropylene is used in packaging, yogurt cups, sour cream and soft cheese containers, prescription bottles, butter/margarine containers, plastic to-go containers, leftover containers, freezer meal containers, the filter cases of some disposable home water filters, electrical wiring, and plastic bottle caps because polypropylene can withstand pressure. It is also used in vehicles for bumpers, carpets, and other parts. Polypropylene allows moisture to escape and stays dry, making it ideal for use in disposable diapers.

About: Polypropylene is sometimes referred to as the “safe” plastic, but there really is no safe plastic when it comes to food. All plastic has the capacity to poison us in certain circumstances. Polypropylene is a stronger plastic than other types, but it is generally not recyclable because there isn’t sufficient reprocessing capacity. Polypropylene is more stable and resists heat better than other plastics. So it is generally considered safer for foods and hot liquids because it leaches fewer chemicals (though it still does leach, which is why you should use glass or metal containers for your food).13 However, this is what many leftover and freezer meal containers are made from. Have you ever noticed rough patches or surface defects in your leftover containers? Any disruptions on the surface mean the polypropylene has been compromised, which increases the chances that it will leach chemicals into your food, especially when heating it.

If you have polypropylene leftover containers from before 2013, replace them. These contained phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). And if you do replace them, please buy stainless steel or glass containers and just avoid the chemicals in plastic altogether.

Chemical content: Polypropylene is a rigid and crystalline thermoplastic made from the polymerization of the propene monomer. There is ongoing research about the health effects of certain additives leaching from polypropylene, such as oleamide, a polymer lubricant and a bioactive compound. Oleamide does occur naturally in the human body, but the long-term effects of synthetic oleamide are not yet known. In a 2021 study entitled “Plastic additive oleamide elicits hyperactivity in hermit crabs,” scientists found that it may be perceived as a feeding cue by marine species, thus increasing the consumption of microplastics.14

Angled photo of the yogurt shelves at the supermarket.
Yogurt and other dairy containers are typically #5 polypropylene. Photo by Marie Cullis.

#6 PS: Polystyrene

“Most recognizable when puffed up with air into that synthetic meringue known technically as expanded polystyrene and popularly by the trademark Styrofoam.” -Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story15

Standard products: The foam form, called Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), also known as Styrofoam, is used in egg cartons, meat trays, single-use food and take-out containers, coffee cups, vehicles, bike helmets, packing peanuts, and home insulation. The rigid form is used for single-use food containers, cutlery, CD and DVD cases, disposable razors, etc. “It is also combined with rubber to create an opaque high impact polystyrene used for model assembly kits, coat hangers, electronic housings, license plate frames, aspirin bottles and medical and lab equipment, including test tubes and petri dishes.”16

About: It may be difficult to avoid this stuff in home insulation, vehicles, and bike helmets, but it should be avoided at all costs when it comes to food and beverages. I wrote a lot about polystyrene in my series on Styrofoam and polystyrene food containers. These containers and cups leach styrene into food and beverages and thus enter your body. Styrene is known to likely be carcinogenic. It is considered a brain and nervous system toxicant and causes problems in the lungs, liver, and immune system.

Chemical content: Polystyrene is a synthetic polymer made from the polymerization of styrene. It is a chemically produced plastic that can be made into a hard or foam plastic. The foam is created by expanding the styrene by blowing various chemical gases into it. Polystyrene is made from ethylene and benzene, both hydrocarbons derived from by-products of petroleum and natural gas (also known as petrochemicals).

Take-out in polystyrene containers
Image by albedo20 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

#7: OTHER Plastics

This is the catch-all category for all ‘other plastics.’ Any plastic items not made from the above six plastic RICs are grouped together as #7’s. These include acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate, epoxy resins, polylactic acid (PLA), and multilayer combinations of different plastics. These are never recyclable except through a few rare and expensive take-back programs, because of the vast array of resins and chemicals mixed together. Below are some of the individual plastic types that fall under #7.

Acrylic: This is a rigid thermoplastic that is strong, diverse, and resilient; and it can be clear or solid colored. Acrylics are used to make bulletproof windows, LEGOs, dental fillings and dentures, airplane windows, aquariums, shower doors, vehicle parts, helmets, and even textiles such as clothing, tents, and sails. This is a stable plastic and is considered a ‘safer’ plastic, except for certain ones used in dental applications. Those, specifically acrylic methacrylate resins, are suspected to be cytotoxic (toxic at the cellular level) because they leach chemicals such as formaldehyde and methyl methacrylate.17 That being said, keep those LEGOs out of your toddler’s mouth.

Red, blue, white, yellow, and black Legos in a small pile.
Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay.

Nylon: This belongs to a group of plastic resins called polyamides that include Kevlar and Velcro. Invented by DuPont in the 1930s, nylon was originally invented to be a synthetic alternative for silk, for example, stockings. Nylon can be fiber, solid, or film. Items made from it include clothing, toothbrush and hairbrush bristles, rope*, instrument strings, tents, parachutes, carpets, tires, food packaging, boat propellers, skateboard wheels, and mechanical and automotive parts.

DuPont advertisement for Nylon from 1949, showing woman pulling up her Nylon stockings.
DuPont advertisement for Nylon from 1949. Image by clotho98 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

*NOTE: Most rope and nets used in commercial fishing are made from nylon and present a huge problem in the oceans. The rope and nets break away from the fishing vessels and become threats to fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals who get entangled in them. Since nylon is plastic, it will not decompose and will remain in the ocean for decades or longer.

Seal on beach with nylon fishing net entangled around its neck.
Nylon fishing net entangled around the neck of a seal. Image by Noutch from Pixabay.

Polycarbonate: Originally designed as an engineering plastic to compete with die-cast metal and substitute glass because it is lightweight, strong, transparent, and shatter-proof. Polycarbonate is very toxic, as it is produced through the reaction of bisphenol A (BPA) with phosgene COCl and can leach chemicals into water or food.18 In the past, it was used in reusable water bottles and baby bottles until bisphenol A (BPA) was ruled toxic. “It is still a favorite for rigid products including CDs and DVDs, eyeglass lenses, dental sealants, lab equipment, snowboards, car parts and housing for cell phones, computers and power tools.” It is also still used in the large, blue water containers common in offices.19 This type of plastic is good for items not related to food or beverage. However, we should use it less overall in other applications when possible to reduce waste, because when polycarbonate breaks it cannot be recycled.

Epoxy resins: Known for high strength, low weight, temperature and chemical resistance. Used in many applications: high-performance adhesives, coatings, paint, sealant, insulators, wind turbine blades, fiber optics, electrical circuit boards, and parts for carts, boats, and planes. They are also used on the interior lining of most canned goods. Avoid these when possible, especially with food and beverage containers because they contain chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and epichlorohydrin. The latter likely causes blood, respiratory, and liver damage and is a probable carcinogen.20

Polylactic Acid (PLA): This is a bio-based plastic made from lactic acid, which is a fermentation product of corn or cane sugar. This is the most common bioplastic, used in a variety of products including clothing, bottles, weed cloth, gift and credit cards, food packaging, diapers, wipes, and disposable dishes. PLA is advertised as compostable but it is only biodegradable under industrial composting conditions, which is still largely unavailable.21

Polyurethanes

This large family of plastics was introduced in 1954. Polyurethanes do not have an assigned RIC, but they are worth mentioning because they are so common. They come in foamed versions that are soft and flexible for uses in mattresses, cushioning in furniture, cars, and running shoes, spray foam insulation, and carpet underlay. They can take on a flexible form for hoses, tubing, gaskets, seals; and they can be tough and rigid for items such as insulating lining for buildings and refrigerators. Polyurethane can also be made into thin films or coatings, such as adhesives for food packaging and waterproof coatings for wood. When it is spun into fibers, it makes Spandex, Lycra, and even latex-free condoms.22

Polyurethane is made from isocyanates, a chemical that is potentially toxic, as it is the leading cause of occupational asthma. “As for our day-to-day use, polyurethanes have also been linked to a skin irritation known as contact dermatitis through direct contact with such polyurethane items as a toilet seat, jewelry and Spandex tapes sewn into underwear.” It is highly flammable and may contain flame retardant additives that go in mattresses and spray foam insulation. Flame retardants are full of chemical combinations that are considered trade secrets, so the public does not know what potential toxins are present in their items. Spray foam insulation, even once cured, can off-gas isocyanate methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), which has been linked to asthma and lung damage.23

Person in white Hazmat suit applying purple spray foam insulation.
Image by justynkalp from Pixabay.

What You Can Do

The best thing you can do is to keep learning, which you’re already doing if you’re reading this article. Stay informed and be aware of what chemicals you’re exposed to through plastics, packaging, and additives. Avoid those which are documented as toxic or even potentially toxic. Additionally, remember that few plastics are actually recycled, so reducing the plastics you purchase is essential to the environment and your health. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

“We all need to separate the hopeful and increasingly fantastical act of recycling from the reality of plastic pollution. Recent data indicates that our recycling wishes, hopes, and dreams – perhaps driven in part by myths surrounding RICs – will not stop plastic from entering our oceans. Instead, if we truly want to protect the environment and marine life, we need to campaign for more plastic-free choices and zones, and for the reduction of plastic production and pollution.”24

 

Additional Resources:

11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food

To learn more about Bioplastics: The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 3

The different types of plastics used in packaging: Guide to my Packaging Industry Series

More about polystyrene #5: Guide to my Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food Series

Article, “An overview of chemical additives present in plastics: Migration, release, fate and environmental impact during their use, disposal and recycling,” by John N.Hahladakis et al., Journal of Hazardous  Materials, Volume 344, February 15, 2018.

Footnotes:

The Chemicals in Plastic and Why it Matters, Part 1

Colorful plastic bottles, from products such as shampoo and household cleaners.
Image by ds_30 from Pixabay.

Plastics are made from chemicals and petroleum.

I have found that most people don’t know that, or don’t care to know. Many plastics are full of potentially toxic chemical concoctions, and knowing what makes up plastics is key to understanding how dangerous those chemicals are. Once you know that, it’s hard to understand why would the FDA, EPA, and other government regulatory agencies allow them to be used in, well…everything.

The short answer is, they just don’t regulate that many chemicals.

But plastics are all around us in everyday life, and thus we are regularly exposed to these chemicals. This is one reason I’m anti-plastic, at least in the way we overuse and overconsume it in daily life.

How Plastic is Made

Colorful plastic nurdles close-up.
Plastic nurdles. Image by feiern1 from Pixabay.

“Most plastic is derived from oil drilling and/or fracking.” -Jennie Romer, sustainability expert and attorney1

Plastics are derived from fossil fuels, such as crude oil and natural gas. It is then processed at a refinery into ethane and propane. Next, they go to what are called cracker facilities that “crack” or break down these molecules. They turn ethane into ethylene, which is a building block of most common plastics. Propane becomes propylene. They are mixed with a catalyst, or chemical additive, that links the molecules together and forms polymers. Polymers are long, repeating chains of molecules that are chemically linked, or bonded, together. Harken back to chemistry class and this process is called polymerization.

But “polymers alone rarely have the physical qualities to be of practical value, so most plastics contain a multitude of chemical additives to facilitate the manufacturing process or produce a particular desirable property, such as flexibility, toughness, color or resistance to UV light.”2 This process forms different resins, or types of plastics, and are generally categorized by Resin Codes (those little numbers on plastics with the recycling symbol around it).

Oil pump with bright blue sky and white clouds background
Image by John R Perry from Pixabay

Plastic is Toxic

These chemical additives are usually what is most harmful to our health and the environment, as they leach over time and under certain conditions such as heat or UV exposure. Additives include dyes, “fragrances” or phthalates, plasticizers such as bisphenol A (BPA), fillers, fluffers, hardeners, stabilizers, lubricants, fire retardants, blowing agents, antistatic chemicals, and even fungicides and antibacterial agents. “Imagine that, plastics eerily designed to repel insects and bacteria, just like genetically modified cotton or corn!” wrote Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha, founders of Life Without Plastic.3

Many chemicals are not even regulated. For example, the FDA banned BPA from infant formula packaging, baby bottles, and sippy cups in 2013 because of its toxic leaching. But, there is a whole family of other bisphenols and most of those are still in active and legal use.

Plastic is often intended for single use only because the toxins leach out over time into your water, food, or product. As Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha noted: “We would wash and reuse single-use water bottles over and over, thinking we were being super eco-aware by preventing them from being recycled after a single use or heading straight into the trash and, ultimately, a landfill. We didn’t realize each use and wash was breaking down the cheap, unstable plastic more and more, and increasing the potential for chemicals and microscopic bits of plastic to leach into our drinks.”4 I used to reuse my plastic water bottles too – and I stored mine in the car, where the plastics were exposed to intense heat and sunlight, both factors that accelerate plastic chemical leaching.

Plastic Marketing

Plastic toy cash register, plastic coins and pretend bills.
Image by anncapictures from Pixabay.

Facing changing public opinion about the harmfulness of plastic in the 1980s, the plastics industry “launched a $50M-a-year ad campaign to improve plastic’s image. Part of the message was ‘recycling is the answer.’ Within the plastics industry, however, it was later revealed that even then there was serious doubt that widespread plastic recycling could ever be made economically viable.”5 They knew then, and they certainly know now, that we cannot recycle all of the plastic. Despite the pollution and toxicity, the plastics industry continues to push, market, and produce excessive plastic products and packaging.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” -Larry Thomas, former head of the Society of the Plastics Industry, now called the Plastics Industry Association6

There are many advocates for plastic production, including the chemical, trade, and petroleum organizations. The global plastics industry is worth between $500 and $800 billion dollars. The plastics industry is not going away while there is that much money at stake.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) is one of the biggest supporters of plastics, and they spend millions each year contributing to political parties in order to fight legislation that would regulate plastic production. Other organizations protective of plastics include (but are not limited to) the Plastics Industry Association, the American Chemical Society, the Manufacturers Association for Plastic Processors, the International Association of Plastics Distribution, the Vinyl Institute, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the Society Of Plastics Engineers.

Plastics Make it Possible Logo, an American Chemistry Council initiative.
Plastics Make it Possible Logo, an American Chemistry Council initiative.

“We are not out to destroy the plastics industry, but we must embrace change.”7

The Overproduction of Plastic

Greenpeace scuba diver holding up a Coca-Cola bottle and sign: "Coca-Cola is this yours?" Found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
A Greenpeace diver holds a banner reading “Coca-Cola is this yours?” and a
Coca-Cola bottle found adrift in the garbage patch. The crew of the Greenpeace ship MY Arctic Sunrise voyage into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch document plastics and other marine debris. CREDIT: © Justin Hofman / Greenpeace, October 1, 2018. Image used with written permission from Greenpeace media.

“Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.”8

There are a few plastics that have an important place on our planet and in our lives, but most do not. Single-use disposable plastics are the major culprits of our plastic pollution problem. The companies we purchase products from are now producing it at such a high rate that we cannot recycle the problem away. Plastic production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015, and it is expected to double by 2050.9 “Plastic is too microscopically dispersed around the world to try and clean it all up at this point…Prevention and avoidance should be engraved in our minds,” wrote Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha in Life Without Plastic.10 Companies and manufacturers must stop producing so much of it!

“Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.”11

Watch this short film about plastic from The Story of Stuff Project:

“We have polluted the planet with indestructible plastic to such a degree that plastic may serve as a fossil marker in our strata to indicate a new era – the way dinosaurs indicate the Mesozoic one – until Big Oil digs the last of those reptiles up to produce more Coke bottles.” -Anne-Marie Bonneau, author of The Zero-Waste Chef12

What To Do

Whatever it takes to slow or stop the neverending barrage of chemical toxicity and plastic pollution being perpetrated on our planet by profit-driven entities, you can start at home and start small. You can avoid and refuse single-use plastic, changing your habits surrounding it one step at a time. I offer many ways to eliminate plastic on my site in my articles such as “11 Ways To Go Plastic-Free With Food,” and under Resources, where there are lists of books, films, and other websites that offer good information.

You have to eliminate plastics in your life in small manageable chunks, because there’s just so much of it. As the founders of Life Without Plastic wrote, “As excited as you may be to embark on this journey, be careful about fully embracing plastic-free living cold turkey, and trying to do it all at once. Once you start noticing the plastic around you, it could overwhelm and discourage you quickly…Take it one step at a time. This is all about changing habits, and that takes time, effort and patience.”13 This will protect you and your family from potentially toxic products entering your body and harming your health.

Contact companies whose products you consume and ask them to switch to responsible packaging. Switch the products you use with items that don’t have plastic. Support legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.14 Getting manufacturers and companies to stop the overproduction of plastics will be key, and to do so we will have to force them through purchase power and legislation.

“We are surrounded by the toxic polluting conundrum that versatile convenient plastic has become. But . . . there are lots of ways to avoid plastics in everyday life – wherever you are, whatever you do. All it takes is a little awareness and initiative. Educated actions, we like to call it.” –Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha, Life Without Plastic15

Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Plastics 101,” National Geographic, May 18, 2018.

Guide to My Packaging Industry Series.

Footnotes: