The six most ordinary types of plastic, both in households and the hospital sector, are PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP og PS.

All plastic consists of polymers. A polymer is a macro molecule made up of a large number of similar building blocks called monomers. Different polymers make up different types of plastics, and in all, there are well over 3000 different types. Plastic itself is a man-made material derived from oil and natural gas.

Marking of plastic types has been made mandatory in the EU, from 2024, which will make the correct disposal of plastic easier. Certain plastic types are more problematic than others due to their environmental impact and toxic risk profile.

Be aware that the triangle symbol is not an indication that plastic is reusable – the symbol simply illustrates which polymer, and what polymers that have been used in the plastic.

Below, you can read about the environmental impact and toxic profile of some of the most used types of plastics.

PET: Polyethylene terephthalate

PET is the most used type of plastic for food and beverage packaging, but is also found extensively in various sorts of medical packaging. PET is fully reusable, and unlike other plastics types, its properties can be retained during the recycling process.

The health and environmental risks connected with PET arise from the toxins, monomers and effects that are produced during the extraction of raw materials, as well as energy usage during production.  The food industry especially, has a huge consumption of non-reusable packaging made from PET, an example being disposable containers for salads and sandwiches in canteens.

HDPE (also known as PE-HD): High density polyethylene

Polyethylene is one of the most produced types of plastic. Polyethylene has the fewest toxic effects in its lifecycle  PE is made on the basis of natural gas, as well as from the extraction of natural gas, which is also a fossil resource. This has a large impact on the geographical areas the gas is extracted from, especially if its extraction is in sensitive places like the Artic. HDPE is typically found in packaging for “special nutrient mixtures”, or dialysis and intravenous fluids.

PVC (also known as V): Polyvinyl chloride

PVC is also produced in large amounts and is the most toxic plastic type with dire risks in both its production, usage and disposal. PVC contains chloride, a carcinogen, and the processing of PVC can require use of mercury and asbestos. Both the production and incineration of PVC create toxic dioxins and sulphur dioxides.

It is necessary to add dangerous additives, like phthalates, into soft PVC to make it a usable product.

Soft PVC is almost never reused. Nevertheless, a substantial amount is still found in food wrapping film, and in a few tubes, especially tubes for new-borns and premature born babies. This is something of a paradox, since new-born babies are particularly sensitive to products containing PVC.

LDPE (also known as PE-LD): Low density polyethylene

LDPE, chemically, is the same as HDPE but undergoes a slightly different production process to make it into a lighter and more flexible product. Plastic bags are typically made from LDPE. LDPE is cheap, reusable and very low in toxicity. LDPE, in the healthcare industry, is found mostly as transport wrapping on pallets and in many peel-packs, which often constitutes the primary packaging for many sterile products.

PP: Polypropylene

Much like polyethylene, polypropylene is produced in huge amounts, and constitutes a low toxic risk level throughout its lifecycle, except during the extraction of oil, its raw material. PP is reusable and has many usages, among other things, rinsing fluids packaged in PP bottling.

PS: Polystyrene

Polystyrene, or EPS, (expanded polystyrene) – sometimes known as styrofoam – has very high isolating qualities and is broadly used in construction, food packaging, and medical packaging. The material used for the production of polystyrene is highly toxic during the production phase, but not during daily usage. Disposable cups and food packaging made from EPS have been banned from the EU from 2021. Disposable cups for vending machines and thermo cups, often found in hospitals, and used by patients, visitors and staff, are often made from polystyrene.

Other – the number in the triangle can be 7-19

This category contains many types of plastic that do not appear in the other categories. Plastics in this category are typically non-reusable because they are a mixture of different plastic types.