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Recyclers switch course, affirm support for recycling codes

By: Mike Verespej

August 9, 2012

WASHINGTON (Aug. 9, 4:15 p.m. ET) — The leading association for plastic recyclers has switched course and now is affirming its support for the existing resin identification code (RIC).

The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers also has temporarily removed information and graphics from its website related to a new recycling program, called Education Without Numbers, which it had unveiled on July 31.

“The APR in no way, shape, or form is advocating moving away from the RIC at this time,” Executive Director Steve Alexander said in an Aug. 9 telephone interview. “The code is still the critical metric for the plastics recycling industry and that’s what drives recycling today and tells us what bales are available.

“The intent [of the Education Without Numbers material] was to provide additional information to recycling coordinators to help them educate consumers about what they can and can’t recycle. In no way was it our intention to ever support or even suggest eliminating the use of the RIC.”

Alexander acknowledged “the confusion” caused by the posting of the information on the APR website and the July 31 APR webinar.

Support from recyclers who want to keep the 25-year-old recycling codes triggered Alexander to write a letter to the APR board on Aug. 8 and follow that up with a letter to all APR members on Aug. 9 that clearly outlined the group’s position.

“Obviously, there is confusion in the market,” said Alexander, in explaining why the information has been retracted, for the time being, from APR’s website. “We’ve taken the information down because we wanted to ensure that the information on the website accurately reflects the position of APR.”

“We want to work to ensure that the confusion is cleared up as soon as we can,” Alexander said. “When I am confident that the information reflects the concerns and positions of plastic recyclers, we will get it back up.”

Part of the reason for the controversy was that the initial language for the Education Without Numbers campaign said the recycling codes were not smart outreach tools for recycling coordinators to use to engage the recycling public.

Three controversial sentences, which appeared on the website for about a week before they were deleted, said: “And those tiny, little numbers on the bottom of a bottle? They’re not smart outreach tools. Those resin identification codes may indicate a plastic bottle’s past but they don’t predict its future!”

One recycling executive, in response to a questionnaire for an upcoming Plastics News Recyclers Market report, wrote:

“Personally, the standard number codes have helped me as a recycler to more easily identify and categorize different plastics [even though] the numbers stand for terms that recyclers instantly recognize and the consumers won’t necessarily recognize right away without some quick research.”

“But I am not sure,” added the executive, “[that] replacing them with graphics and quick facts on every single piece of plastic makes the system of recycling any simpler. … So far, the standard codes have been good for explaining details on plastic.”

Another executive wrote: “Really concerned about this. This may make it easier for the consumer ... but, I am concerned, at the same time, [that] neither our suppliers nor us, have all the equipment to (1) take more materials types, (2) sort commingled, and (3) deal with some of the issues in waste water.”

An even bigger concern is that a move away from RIC numbers would “give converters more freedom to resin switch back and forth based on market cost of resin,” said the same executive.

“Now they have capital costs on molds that help prevent this. If they do this switching we are all going to be in the dark unless there is technology in place to deal with the changes. .... I am concerned we are creating more supply for low-labor countries and taking away supply from us.”

The letter Alexander wrote to members in an APR Member Update on Aug. 9 said “APR supports the RIC, even if some find it not the perfect solution.”

“The RIC is a critical tool for reclaimers to identify resin type when presented with similarly appearing bottles or containers,” Alexander said. “We use the RIC every day as a key descriptor in commerce for what we want and do not want.”

In discussing the recent July 31 webinar, Alexander told Plastics News that “APR was concerned that the way the information was presented did not accurately reflect APR’s position on the continued use of the RIC code.”

In his letter to APR members, Alexander said that the July 31 webinar “presented a view of what should be the long term vision: making recycling so easy for consumers that there is no alternate behavior.

“Unfortunately, the reality of sorting technology limitations and the cold logic of economics makes that long term vision not attainable today,” he wrote. “We still need the numbers. So while we investigate alternatives to the current philosophies and practices, we rely on the numbers.”

 “APR does not advocate abandoning the resin identification system,” he wrote. “The system, with its acknowledged shortcomings, is valuable to local recycling coordinators, MRF operators, and reclaimers. It is the basis for obtaining the highest value for marketed goods.

“We all know the RIC has limitations,” he wrote, pointing out, for example, that the code “is not helpful when a call for “number 2’s” results in bottles, bags, cups, and tubs, with a wide variety of melt indices.

In addition, he noted in his letter that the current RIC does not handle subsets or address additives and modifiers. “And for many consumers the code implies recyclability whether the items are sought for recycling or not,” he wrote.

“APR .... advocates improvements to the ASTM resin identification system to aid all members of the recycling supply chain,” he wrote. “At the same time, APR advocates the economical collection and sorting of valuable post-consumer plastic items and the expansion of such collection. Today, that means using resin identification numbers and graphics to aid in the proper placement of used items into recycling collection systems.”

The Education Without Numbers campaign discussed on the webinar and initially posted on the APR website identifies plastics by six types of categories that some believe are more easily identifiable to consumers.

During the July 31 webinar, Patty Moore, president of Moore Recycling Associates Inc., said it was “essential that we move plastic recycling beyond the numbers because, in my opinion, the RIC [is holding back recycling.”

“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,” she said during the July 31 webinar. “There are better options and that is why we need to move forward. There is no reason for consumers to look for the code.”

The RIC—a number located inside a chasing arrow triangle—was never intended as a guide for consumers, Moore said, but rather as something that could help recyclers sort plastics when only bottles were being recycled.

The material presented during the webinar—and that APR initially posted on its website—focused on an education campaign that used six categories of plastic products instead of the RIC, which are currently in the process of being revised by ASTM.

The six categories, each with its own set of graphics, are:

• 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.

But not everyone agrees the graphics and categories are that easy to understand.

“How can we rely on a system that says, ‘all clean plastics’ except film, bags, foam?” wrote Robert Dishman, executive vice president for supply chain for plastics recycler and resin manufacturer NextLife in a comment posted online to the original Plastics News article on the new educational campaign.

“This sounds to me as if we are still excluding items that are actually recyclable today,” Dishman wrote. “We can create more confusion by changing what has been the industry standard and cater to antiquated recycling infrastructure, or we can solve the problem by spending our time and efforts in updating the current material recovery system to actually accept all clean plastics.”

“This system will be fine if and only if the recycling plants can process based on these classifications,” wrote John Albertini, program coordinator at the Maine Resource Recovery Association. “[But] our experience has been that they can not or will not. They consider many of the items lumped together here to be contamination and reason for downgrade or outright rejection.”

“Until the processors can receive and process the material classified this way, the industry is being hypocritical and/or lying to their suppliers about what is or is not acceptable,” he wrote. “It would create an environmental and public relations nightmare if large quantities end up disposed of rather than recycled as a result of these changes.”

“The RIC code approach seems to be working well in the St. Louis area,” wrote Tom Flood, manager of operations and sustainability for Schlafly Beer. “I think a change like the one suggested in this article would result in more confusion.”

One person commenting on the PN article, however, applauded the move.

“I think it's about time to do away with numbers,” said another person who commented on the initial Plastics News article. “I have confused others with those nomenclatures many times. I've had to go online each time to confirm which numbers are OK to recycle. Plain English that says ‘OK to recycle’ will do. Or just say ‘Good,’ ‘Bad,’ and/or ‘Trash’ would be better.”

Each of the six categories in the Education Without Numbers educational campaign is designed to have 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.

The graphics developed for the campaign 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.