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ITW Hi-Cone's recycling program last year collected more than 291,000 pounds of six-pack carrier rings — equivalent to 34.4 million rings.

ITW, an Illinois Tool Works division based in Itasca, Ill., has implemented recycling programs for six-pack carrier rings in more than 8,000 schools across the country as well as other public places such as zoos and aquariums. Since the program's inception, more than 1.5 million pounds, or 186.7 million rings, have been recycled.

The Ring Leader Recycling Program targets grade school children, said ITW spokesman Bob Platt. Initially started in one school near ITW Hi-Cone's plant, the program has spread nationwide by word-of-mouth, he said. Last year, schools in the Ring Leader program recycled enough plastic rings to stretch 5,150 miles, according to ITW.

ITW Hi-Cone also involves bottlers, third-party vendors and haulers in the recycling program.

``Our message is that there is a proper way to dispose of things, not littering and not landfilling but recycling,'' said Platt.

Six-pack rings are placed on branches of recycling trees made of plastic lumber. When the trees are full, the unsorted rings are placed in a box and shipped, postage paid, back to ITW. ITW then recycles the low density polyethylene rings into new six-pack carriers. The rings also can be combined with other LDPE products to produce plastic lumber.

The recycling program was started in 1992. The company refuses to disclose the number of rings it manufactures each year but claims to be the world's leading maker of six-pack rings.

ITW Hi-Cone developed the ring can carrier in 1962. Today all of ITW's ring carriers are photodegradable — after several days of direct exposure to sunlight, the carrier loses about 75 percent of its strength. Depending on the season, temperature, latitude and other factors that affect ultraviolet ray exposure, the rings become completely brittle and break down to smaller pieces.