Ditching resin codes a tricky little issue

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Apparently the time hasn’t come — yet — to do away with the resin identification code.

That’s good news. Because the codes have their share of problems, but they still serve a purpose. And getting rid of them would create more problems than keeping them in place.

I wrote last week in “The Plastics Blog” about how some recyclers, and even more municipalities, have had a big problem with the resin ID code for many years.

Recyclers have long said the code adds an unnecessary layer of confusion and prevents more plastics from being recycled. Plus putting a code on a container implies to many consumers that their community accepts them in the recycling stream.

If you want to recycle PET and polyethylene bottles — the most commonly recycled materials — then you might think of thermoformed PET containers and PE grocery bags as contaminants.

But try explaining that to consumers who just want to do the right thing and recycle as much plastic as they can.

Still, it was a surprise to see the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers step up and propose a plan that could be an alternative — something called Education Without Numbers. That plan has merit. But dropping the resin ID code would have impacted recyclers, processors, toolmakers, product designers, resin suppliers — just about everyone in the plastics industry.

So I was glad to see APR reconsider and come out with a statement supporting the existing recycling codes.

Mike Verespej’s story about APR’s position is on Page 1 of today’s issue. Among other things, he quotes recyclers who say that while the recycling codes aren’t perfect, getting rid of them would cause problems.

Also, don’t forget that ASTM International Inc. is knee-deep in its plans to update the existing ID codes, adding categories and more specific information to help consumers and recyclers. That project will take time, but it’s also likely to come up with improvements.

Finally, don’t forget that the resin ID code is mandated by law in 39 states. Changing the laws isn’t impossible, but it’s another hurdle in any effort to change the status quo.

Can resin ID codes coexist with Education Without Numbers? Yes — though some recyclers might not be happy with that option.

Our sister publication Waste & Recycling News had an interesting take on the subject in its Aug. 6 editorial. The column, “Changing plastics numbering system a good start,” applauds APR’s motives, but adds that “we fear yet another labeling system is only going to puzzle, annoy and discourage people who want to recycle.”

The recycling industry’s goal, says WRN, should be to be able to handle a single stream of all plastics, including bags, foam and film.

“It’s our job to figure out how to sort and process it all,” the newspaper wrote. “It’s a lofty goal for sure, given the wide-ranging physical and chemical characteristics of the different plastics.”

That’s a great point. In the long term, recyclers should want to recycle all types of plastics. And it’s absolutely in the plastics industry’s interest to support recyclers and help them reach that goal.

 Loepp is editor of  Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”