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Different Types of Plastic

Different Types of Plastic

There are a myriad of different plastics used in every industry from foodservice to clothing to electronics. While they all may seem the same at a glance, these different types of plastic actually have very different features and uses, and it's important to know the differences between them to make the best choices for your business.

Types of Plastic Defined

Below we define the most common types of plastic used in the foodservice industry to give you a better understanding of what these plastics are exactly.

Please note, the features lists below are characteristics that typically apply to items made from these plastics, but you should always defer to the manufacturers' care and use guidelines.
HS polypropylene black pizza tray with pepperoni pizza

What is Polypropylene?

Polypropylene, often abbreviated PP, is a thermoplastic polymer that is originally opaque in color, though it is often dyed using colored pigments. This hard plastic material is the second most common plastic produced around the world due to its excellent chemical and heat resistance. Sometimes manufacturers will add mineral fillers to polypropylene to create a harder plastic, but this mineral-filled polypropylene loses some of its flexibility and comes in a cloudy white color. 

  • Features: Safe for use in freezers, microwaves, and dishwashers as well as under heat lamps. Chemical- and heat-resistant. BPA-free.
  • Common Uses: Disposable dinnerware/flatware, take-out containers, straws, hot-holding items.
  • Recycling Code: 5

Red cutting board with sausages being cut by a worker

What is Polyethylene?

Often abbreviated PE, polyethylene is a thermoplastic homo-polymer that has excellent flexibility and impact strength. It is the most produced plastic in the world. While this material has a low melting point, it makes up for this with its lightweight design as well as its crack- and crush-resistant construction.

  • Various forms of polyethylene:
    • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a denser form of PE that has high tensile strength, making it perfect for items like milk jugs, trash cans, and soap bottles. Not freezer safe.
    • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) has a looser chemical make-up which increases its ductility, or flexibility. This material is great for making plastic bags or film wrap.
    • Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) is similar to LDPE, but it is harder to process. It has the same benefits of LDPE but with higher tensile strength, so it is primarily used in film wrap applications.
  • Features: Safe for use in freezers. Crack-resistant. BPA-free.
  • Common Uses: Take-out containers, deli containers, tumblers, cutting boards.
  • Recycling Code: Polyethylene is 1; HPDE is 2; LDPE and LLDPE are 4.

Crystal Geyser pack of 28 small water bottles

What is Polyethylene Terephthalate?

More commonly known as PET or PETE, polyethylene terephthalate is a thermoplastic polymer resin that is most commonly used as synthetic fiber to create polyester. When made into a plastic it is either rigid or semi-rigid, and in this form it is most often clear or transparent in appearance, though it can be dyed various colors. It is very useful, as it is crack- and crush-resistant while remaining lightweight.

  • Features: Safe for use in freezers. Crack-resistant. BPA-free.
  • Common Uses: Drink bottles, chemical bottles, tape.
  • Recycling Code: 1

D&W polystyrene knife next to a bagel with cream cheese

What is Polystyrene?

A simple, naturally occurring chemical called styrene is strung together to manufacture polystyrene (PS) plastic. This material provides better insulation than most plastics and usually comes in a clear color, making it ideal for packaging or storing food. It is very rigid and can be prone to cracking, but it is also lightweight and inexpensive, so your replacement costs will be low.

  • Various forms of polystyrene:
    • Oriented polystyrene, often abbreviated OPS, can be made from polystyrene and is used to create a thin, clear material that is ideal for simple packaging that needs to tear easily, like packaging individual snacks or flatware. OPS is not microwave safe or BPA-free.
  • Features: Polystyrene is safe for use in microwaves. BPA-free.
  • Common Uses: Disposable dinnerware/flatware, protective packaging, lids, trays.
  • Recycling Code: 6

man wearing a set of clear polycarbonate goggles

What is Polycarbonate?

This material, often referred to as PC, is an engineered thermoplastic that is used when durability is your main concern. Clear in its original form, though it is often colored or darkened to be translucent, polycarbonate can be used in applications where glass-like transparency is needed. It is extremely impact- and heat-resistant as well, though it can be scratched or “crazed” fairly easily. Unique to polycarbonate, this plastic also helps protect against UV rays.

  • Features: Safe for use in freezers and dishwashers. Impact- and heat-resistant.
  • Common Uses: Glasses/goggles, appliances like refrigerators or coffee machines, food storage containers.
  • Recycling Code: 7

Blue CKF meat tray with crab cakes on top

What is Foam (Expanded Polystyrene)?

EPS, or expanded polystyrene, is formed by taking beads of polystyrene, expanding them with steam, compressing them into a mold, and then steaming it again to form the final foam product. This foam material comes in a variety of densities to best suit its purpose.

  • Features: Safe for use in microwaves. Provides excellent insulation.
  • Common Uses: Food/meat trays, egg cartons, cups, take-out containers.
  • Recycling Code: 6

Expert Tip

Styrofoam is the same as EPS, but it is made using a patented formula. Every company simply creates their foam materials using a slightly different process or formula.
Goff's clear PVC partition shown in a dining area

What is PVC?

PVC plastic’s technical name is polyvinyl chloride, and this thermoplastic polymer is made either rigid or flexible during production. The rigid form of PVC is used in packaging applications, but it should not be used to package food. Resistant to chemicals, water, and impact, this rigid form is a lightweight but durable material.  The flexible form is used to make signage or replace rubber to protect or cover an item. Both types of PVC are often used in building or electrical applications.

  • Features: Chemical- and impact-resistant.
  • Common Uses: Film, gloves, placemats, partitions.
  • Recycling Code: 3

GET plastic schooner with a blue drink and swedish fish

What is SAN?

SAN plastic is actually named styrene acrylonitrile resin and is made of styrene and acrylonitrile, making it an excellent replacement for polystyrene. It boasts excellent thermal and chemical resistance, but is more prone to cracking if dropped. SAN is scratch-resistant as well. Due to its transparency, it is great for use in applications where you need to easily see through the plastic.

  • Features: Safe for use in dishwashers. Chemical- and heat-resistant. BPA-free.
  • Common Uses: Food storage containers, tumblers, drinkware.
  • Recycling Code: 7

Libbey plastic beverage glass with pink drink inside

What is Tritan?

Tritan is a tough, break-resistant plastic material that was made to fill the need for BPA-free plastic in the market. It is resistant to impact, cracking, shattering, and bending so you can rely on it to last in your establishment. It is an excellent, lightweight alternative to glassware due to its transparency, but it also has a nice hand-feel to promote a more high-end atmosphere that other plastics can’t offer. However, there is a huge debate as to whether Tritan plastic is safe – George Bittner from the University of Texas began studies suggesting that while Tritan is BPA-free, it contains estrogenic/androgenic activity (EA/AA), which is similar to BPA in its negative effects. But Eastman, the developer of Tritan, has also done studies that suggest Tritan is EA/AA-free and completely safe. Consumers are currently waiting on more conclusive data to decide one way or the other.

  • Features: Safe for use in freezers, microwaves, and dishwashers. Impact-resistant. BPA-free.
  • Common Uses: Bottles, tumblers, pitchers.
  • Recycling Code: 7

Choice Safecut foodservice film

What is Polylactic Acid Plastic?

Abbreviated as PLA, polylactic acid plastic is a thermoplastic polyester material that is made from renewable resources such as corn starch. The main selling feature of PLA is that it is eco-friendly as it is made from renewable resources and is biodegradable at the end of its life. However, the material cannot yet be produced at a large industrial scale, has a low melting point, and is fairly permeable so it cannot easily be used to store food long-term. When crystallized during manufacturing, this material can handle slightly higher temperatures.

  • Features: Safe for use in freezers. BPA-free and biodegradable/compostable.
  • Common Uses: Straws, film wrap, deli containers.
  • Recycling Code: 7
     

Plastic Recycling Codes

The recycling number you find on your plasticware indicates how to recycle your items. Please note that only the number represented inside the triangle of arrows, as depicted below, refers to the recycling status of the item. These numbers are called a Resin Identification Code, or an RIC. As a general rule, the smaller the number, the more common it is for the plastic to be recycled, and therefore the more likely it is for your local recycling facility to take the items. Here are some basic rules, but always check with your recycling facility for more specific information:
  • Plastics with codes 1 and 2 are easy to process so they are taken by almost all recycling facilities.
  • Plastics with codes 3, 4, 5, and 6 are more difficult to recycle so it depends on your local facility. Check with them before recycling.
  • Plastics with code 7 are rarely recyclable so are best thrown out. But you can check with your local recycling facility to confirm.
RIC Code
Plastics
Made into...
Recycling Code 1
PET(E)
PE
Cloth, storage containers, shoes, luggage, furniture
Recycling Code 2
HDPE Crates, fencing, bottles, pens
Recycling Code 3
PVC Flooring, cables, mats, bubble wrap
Recycling Code 4
LDPE
LLDPE
Garbage cans, floor tile, paneling
Recycling Code 5
PP Brooms, bins, pallets, trays
Recycling Code 6
Polystyrene
Expanded polystyrene
Insulation, egg cartons, take-out containers
Recycling Code 7
PC
Styrene
Other
Plastic lumber

Why should I use plastic?

If you’re running a foodservice establishment, whether that be a bar, restaurant, or food truck, you may wonder why you would want to use plastic at all. Ultimately, there are many advantages and disadvantages to choosing plastic over typical glassware or ceramics, so you have to decide which option is best for your business.

Pros
  • Great for outdoor patios or for use poolside since you don't need to worry about the hazards of broken glass.
  • Lightweight to make transportation easy for servers and customers alike.
  • While many plastic items are reusable, there are also disposable options that are great for single-service use or for take-out applications.
  • Kid-friendly material gives parents peace of mind while dining.
  • Low price point.
Cons
  • Potential negative effects the disposal of plastic can have on the environment.
  • Difficult to handle piping hot foods and beverages.
  • Rarely provides a high-end or sophisticated feel.
  • Plastic is more likely to stain or get discolored after extended use.
  • Customers may be concerned about BPA and other chemicals in plastics.

Why are some plastics marked BPA-free?

BPA is a chemical that is often used when creating everyday plastic items,
from eyeglasses and security shields to storage containers and medical supplies. While this chemical has been around for over 100 years, its safety has been called into question sporadically since 1976 and there have been debates about it ever since. In an effort to keep customers as informed as possible, you can find this symbol on the item pages for plastic items that are confirmed to be BPA-free on our site.

So the question remains, is BPA safe? The FDA has always held that BPA is safe for use in plastic materials. In 2008 it was revealed that the FDA based their assessment off of 2 case studies, and at this point the question about BPA became much more widespread and worrisome as individual states in the US took political action trying to ban the chemical. This spread to other countries as well, as places like Canada and Germany started enforcing bans on BPA. The main concern in all this is the presence of BPA in baby bottles and other infant products, as the negative effects are said to be primarily hormonal, effecting the reproductive organs and puberty progress of children.

However, in 2018 the US National Toxicology Program (a program initiated by the FDA) released a final report on the matter after over 20 in-depth studies were done by federal government scientists. Their findings? That BPA is safe. Their study indicates that consumer exposure to this chemical is low to begin with, well below safety limits, and the BPA that is introduced to the body is quickly and naturally eliminated. At these levels, there is no evidence of any reproductive, developmental, or health effects.

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