How to pick safe plastic containers for water collection and storage

If you’re collecting and storing water to cope with Cape Town’s water crisis, make sure you are using the right plastic containers, writes Diony Lalieu, winner of the Roving Reporters 2017 Soul Surfer award at the 2017 SA Longboarding Championships and founder of Surfers Pledge. Read Diony’s advice below:

‘Apart from the piercing late summer sun, the first thing that stands out on arrival is the continuously replenished flow of multicoloured water containers waiting patiently (or not so much) in line to get their fill. Some red, mostly blue and plenty white.

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Some dented, others creased. Some buckets, some bottles and plenty of back-breaking 25-litre canisters. The one thing they all have in common is plastic. The one thing they do not have in common is the TYPE of plastic.

While we all stand as equals before this precious resource called water, the grades of plastic that we use to contain this element vary substantially. So, before you splurge out on the ever-trending plastic container, here’s what you need to know….

Not all plastics are equal
Plastics vary in structure and chemical composition. Not all types of plastic are suitable for food or water storage. Look out for Food Grade quality. This ensures that the plastic conforms to health and safety regulations, meaning it is free from dyes or plastic deemed harmful to humans, such as BPA (bisphenol A), which is a hormone disrupter associated with cancer and other health-related issues. Food Grade numbers are readily identifiable as resin codes #1, 2, 4 and 5, which appear within the triangular green chasing arrows on the back of the container or on the label.

Safety in numbers
#1 PET (polyethyleneterephthalate): for example regular spring-water bottles (often light blue or clear) and soft-drink bottles. According to Cheri Scholtz, CEO of recycling company PETCO, PET is considered safe for storage and reuse, is free from BPA or other endocrine-disrupting toxins and can easily be recycled into a host of useful products.

#2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene): for example white milk bottles and fruit-juice bottles. This is the safest form of plastic, as it is chemically resistant, structurally sound, hard-wearing and resistant to breaking down due to exposure to sunlight or extremes such as heating and freezing. Moreover, it can easily be recycled.

#5: PP (polypropylene): for example yoghurt, margarine and ice-cream containers, canisters, squeezy bottles and bottle caps. Tough and lightweight with high heat resistance, this is considered safe for reuse and is in high demand for recycling.

#4: LDPE (low-density polyethylene): this is used mostly in flexible packaging such as peel-off lids and clingfilm. JoJo Tanks are made from this form of plastic (lined with a food-safety-accredited lining). It’s deemed safe, as it does not react with food. It’s highly popular for recycling.

Try to avoid #3, #6 and #7
#3: PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is known as ‘the poison plastic’. Although sun-resistant in the form of outdoor furniture, it should not be used for water or food storage, as it contains many additives that can result in leaching of toxins. Think clear plastic food wrapping, cooking-oil bottles and even teething rings for babies, children’s and pets’ toys, and blister packaging for various consumer products. It’s not generally used in water-storage canisters.

#6: PS (high-impact vs expanded polystyrene) General and high-impact polystyrene is more rigid and is used in the manufacturing of disposable items such as plastic utensils, whereas expanded polystyrene is less structured and lightweight, and is used for clamshell takeaway containers and cups. The latter is an impossible environmental nightmare, as it readily breaks down into smaller microns and should not be used to heat food, as it may leach styrene when heated.

#7: Other forms of plastic that do not fall under #1 to #6 and are associated with unspecified degrees of toxic leaching.

What to avoid:
1. Never heat and cook with any form of plastic.

2. Avoid storing food/water in containers that have previously housed chemicals.

3. Avoid reuse if a plastic container is dented or creased. Rather send it for recycling.

4. If something is labelled ‘microwave-/dishwasher-safe’ it does not imply it’s safe for storage or consumption. It only means it won’t warp or break when heated.

5. And remember, if it says ‘not for drinking water’, then don’t use it to store drinking water!

Supplement your health
Supplement your diet with glutathione, an antioxidant used to boost your immunity and help prevent diseases based on reactive oxygen species.

Ensure safe drinking water
1. Make sure your hands are clean.

2. Ensure that your storage container is properly cleaned and sterilised.

3. Keep your water in an airtight container, preferably in a cool, dark, dry place, to avoid algae and microbial growth.

4. The quality of water from iconic water-collection spots such as Kalk Bay and Newlands is not tested regularly. Being from a live source, it is more likely to grow algae sooner than treated water. The onus is on the user.

5. When in doubt boil the water (for at least two to three minutes) before consumption, but wait until the water has cooled down before putting it into a plastic storage container.

6. Alternatively, add two drops of nonadditive, unscented chlorine to every two litres of water and let the water stand for 30 minutes before drinking.

7. Calcium hypochlorite is better than liquid bleach when it comes to storing water because of its longer shelf life.

Protect your environment
Look out for the recycling symbol to ensure that the container can be sustainably disposed of after use. Use appropriate channels – such as recycling bins, drop-off zones and informal recyclers who can exchange trash for treasure at recycling depots – to ensure that your recycling does not end up in a landfill.

Celebrate the source
Never before have we been so appreciative of what we now understand to be a scarce resource. Make every drop count. Be grateful. Don’t be wasteful. And remember, sharing is caring. We are in this together.’

More about Diony Lalieu
Diony Lalieu is the founder of Surfers Pledge – a campaign to increase awareness of the impact that plastic has on our ocean and, in turn, the planet. ‘Surfers Pledge encourages you to choose one single behaviour, one little thing that you can work on in your own capacity. If we all do a little it will go a long way,’ says Diony. She is getting surfers all over the world to sign the Surfers Pledge – a vow to change their behaviour and attitude towards plastic.

Follow Surfers Pledge on Facebook and Instagram for more information.

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