Campaign aims to educate consumers on plastics recycling

By: Mike Verespej

August 1, 2012

WASHINGTON (Aug. 1, 1:30 p.m. ET) — Plastics recyclers are boldly moving forward with a new Education Without Numbers campaign because they are convinced that the resin identification code only adds an unnecessary layer of confusion and prevents more plastics from being recycled.

The new recycling campaign identifies plastics by six types of categories that the industry believes are easily identifiable to consumers.

 “It’s essential that we move plastic recycling beyond the numbers because, in my opinion, the RIC [resin identification code] is holding back recycling,” said Patty Moore, president of Moore Recycling Associates Inc., who helped develop the new program for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers with funding support from the American Chemistry Council.

“The numbers create a lot of confusion for the public about what can and cannot be recycled and are creating a layer of confusion that is unnecessary,” Moore said during a July 31 webinar to unveil the new campaign and graphics, which were simultaneously posted on the APR website.

“There are better options and that is why we need to move forward,” Moore said. “There is no reason for consumers to look for the code.”

The resin identification code — a number located inside a chasing arrow triangle — was never intended as a guide for consumers, she said, but as something to help recyclers sort plastics when only bottles were being recycled.

In the material for the new educational campaign that the Washington-based APR initially posted on its website, the introduction said that the RIC numbers aren't a smart outreach tool to use with consumers. 

"Those tiny little numbers on the bottom of a bottle? They’re not smart outreach tools,” APR said in the initial language that introduced the Education Without Number campaign. “Those resin identification codes may indicate a plastic bottle’s past, but they don’t predict its future.” But APR later pulled down the information from the website and reposted it Aug. 6 without those three sentences.

Instead of focusing on the RIC — which have been in use for 25 years and is currently in the process of being revised by the standards group ASTM — the new campaign identifies plastic products by six categories with specific graphics for each:

• All plastic bottles.

• Plastic bottles and containers (such as tubs with lids) — but no thermoformed packaging.

• All plastic bottles and containers.

• Clean rigid plastics — no bags, no foam.

•  All clean plastics with bags and film wraps bundled.

• All clean plastics, no bags and film wrap.

“The ability to collect a broader range of materials is growing, and there are now easily described groups of plastics that can now be collected and recycled,” Moore said.

“This gives us the ability to educate people about plastics recycling without using the code and the opportunity to remove that layer of confusion from the public and explain [plastic recycling] in language they understand.”

Each of the six categories has its own graphic, a short list of facts designed for use by recycling coordinators on brochures or fliers, and a more detailed set of facts designed for use on websites or that can be given to people moving into a community to explain the plastic recycling program in detail.

Additionally, instead of listing all the items in a specific category, the graphics and quick facts note what is excluded from a specific category.

“It is more effective to highlight what’s excluded,” Moore said — for example, no film or bags.

APR said the graphics are designed to be easy to read, and to be used as signage at the point of recycling. The quick facts provide specific examples of what does and what does not go into the recycling bin, and the more detailed information is designed for use on websites or as an informational guide.

For example, the quick facts for the “all clean plastic bottles” category explain that a bottle is any plastic container with an opening smaller than its base. And it lists soda, juice, milk, detergent, and shampoo bottles as examples. Other messages include: Please empty. Keep plastic caps and lids on containers. And food, bags, film, cups, tubs, straws, or other types of plastic should not be part of this category.

A second example: The “clean rigid plastics” category includes bottles, jugs, cups, tubs, boxes, flower pots, clamshells, crates, toys, buckets and lawn furniture. It tells communities to tell consumers to keep plastic caps and lids on containers, and not to include plastic bags, wraps, film, food, dirt, metal, straws, paper, utensils, degradable or compostable plastics.

All the graphics and material for the Education Without Numbers program can be downloaded at www.plasticsrecycling.org/market-development/education-and-outreach.

The initiative is part of the continuing work by APR to increase the collection and recycling of plastic products.

“The objective is to keep the material in the United States and to sustain the growth of recycling economically,” said Steve Alexander, executive director of APR, whose members recycle more than 90 percent of all the post-consumer plastic in North America.

With the introduction of this new education campaign, Moore believes communities should stop using the resin identification codes in the information and education programs they develop for plastic recycling.

“The RIC should not be used in outreach or education programs for recycling,” for a number of reason, Moore said.

Among them: Consumers think the chasing arrows on the bottom of a plastic products means a product can be recycled and that’s not always the case, she said. And, other times, consumers will choose not to recycle a product because they can’t find, or can’t read, the number.

“All of that is unfortunate,” she said. “And then folks ask coordinators, ‘Why can’t I recycle this?’ And it becomes problematic” and an obstacle to increasing the amount of plastics that are recycled.

“The RIC does not imply recyclability. It just identifies the resin,” she said.