Resin ID codes still stuck in ASTM limbo

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The process of revising the industry's resin identification code continues at a very slow pace, with discussions continuing on many of the same issues that have been central to that debate since standards-setting organization ASTM International Inc. took over that task in early 2009.

“We are continuing to discuss modifications,” said Tom Pecorini, a senior research associate at Eastman Chemical Co., who is the technical contact from the plastic industry on the issue. “We may have a ballot in the next three to four months, looking at some of the major and more controversial issues.”

That will be just another step in the lengthy process of updating the standard. But some changes might be coming later this year.

“I think there is a reasonable chance that we will see some additions or changes by the fall of this year,” said Dave Cornell, technical director for the Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers. “[But] it will be piecemeal.”

Last August, ASTM adopted as ASTM D7611 the resin ID code that was first developed in 1988 by the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industries Inc. — rather than make changes in the code before issuing a standard.

“What's next is developing something that is useful” for recyclers and “less difficult” for consumers to understand, Pecorini said during the Plastics Recycling Conference, held March 1-2 in New Orleans.

On the table are many of the nearly two-dozen issues that have been under discussion for more than two years.

Among the issues being discussed, according to Pecorini:

* Whether subcodes should be added to distinguish between incompatible resins with the same code number.

* Whether to add new codes for other major resins.

* Developing criteria for adding subcodes and creating new codes beyond the current seven.

* Possibly adding optional descriptions for No. 7 resin, the number now used to label resins that don't fit into the other six categories.

* Whether to provide clearer descriptions of each resin.

Pecorini also said there has been discussion of eliminating the chasing arrows as consumers often assume that means an item is recyclable. But he also added that “removing the chasing arrows may be illegal.”

The current resin ID code has legally been adopted in 39 states for bottles and containers. So even when ASTM makes changes, states would have to amend their laws and adopt the ASTM changes for recyclers to be able to use them and not to be in violation of state laws.

“It is going to take some time to transition the states that have codified the RIC for bottles and containers. Any modifications must be compatible,” Pecorini said.

And while making changes piecemeal is “problematic” from the aspect of changing state laws, Cornell said ASTM has “dealt with citation in statute and regulations before, so there will be a mechanism for keeping the state laws updated.”

Pecorini said the ASTM subcommittee charged with responsibility for proposing changes — which would have to be adopted through balloting by ASTM members — also is looking at a number of other issues.

“We are looking at whether it should be a recycling code or a resin identification code, as collection and recycling are not the same thing, and not all articles with a given code are recyclable,” Pecorini said.

For example, he said, right now, polypropylene bottles are recyclable, but not PP moldings. PET bottles are recyclable, he said, but not PET clamshells.

Because the code is used by both municipal recyclers and commercial and industrial recyclers, he said the subcommittee also is considering whether additional codes would foster commercial and industrial recycling.

There are also ongoing discussions on whether additional information on codes, subcodes or even “some other type of additional marking” can be used to clarify further what people can put in a recycling or drop-off bin,” Pecorini said.

The subcommittee also is studying whether to add separate code classifications for other resins — such as polycarbonate, linear low density polyethylene and polylactic acid bioresin.

“We are focusing on how to make this as usable as possible,” he said.

The resin ID code was not developed as a recycling code, but consumers and municipalities use it to identify plastics for recycling. PET, high density PE, PVC, LDPE, PP and polystyrene now are designated 1-6, respectively, with everything else given a 7.

The task of possibly changing elements of the code was turned over to West Conshohocken, Pa.-based ASTM in early 2009. ASTM's D20.95 subcommittee on recycled plastics is spearheading the effort.

Even after the first round of changes, the standard won't remain static, as ASTM procedures call for standards reviews every five years, Cornell said.