In recycling, numbers matter

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The recent push to move to “education without the numbers” is misguided and may be damaging. This new approach to plastics recycling education has caused quite a stir, following the July 31 promotional webinar, and for good reason.

While the campaign’s overarching goal of making plastic recycling easier for consumers is laudable, it does not recognize the practical reality of plastics recycling or the ramifications of collecting plastic resins that have no reliable, domestic markets.

While it may be accurate to note that the resin identification code was not intended to be a recycling symbol, it still differentiates one resin from another. The PET industry has built its bottle collection volumes over the years by asking consumers to look for No. 1 PET bottles and jars. In support of this effort, the industry has invested or leveraged hundreds of millions [of dollars] in consumer education, collection, intermediate processing, and reclaiming infrastructure and programs — the National Association for PET Container Resources alone has invested or leveraged more than $100 million in pilot and demonstration projects.

It is true that all resins are technically recyclable — that is, they can be melted down and made into something else. However, some resins, like PET, have reliable, domestic recycling markets while others do not. To lump all plastic bottles, all plastic containers or all plastics together without regard to their resin gives the false impression that all resins are equally economically and practically recyclable. This is just plain untrue.

Let’s take thermoform plastics, for example. Through NAPCOR, the PET thermoform industry worked with reclaimers to identify the logistical and technical barriers that prevented PET thermoforms from being recycled and made significant investments to overcome them. This was done in a fashion that did not jeopardize existing bottle-recycling assets. NAPCOR has facilitated these efforts through PET thermoform lab work, testing and production trials with all parts of the recycling system in both the United States and Canada.

Today, most North American reclaimers are accepting either mixed bales of PET thermoforms and bottles, or dedicated bales of PET thermoforms, for a fair market value. (The percentage of thermoforms varies, as agreed to by reclaimers and their suppliers.) Communities and recycling facilities that do not have the capacity to sort or market other non-bottle plastics can now add PET thermoforms into their systems. In this case, the resin identification is a critical consumer-education tool, combined with package descriptions and photographs — other thermoform resins would be contaminants in the system. 

Educating the public to put all resins in the recycling bin adds cost to the system and impacts the quality of the truly recyclable resins. Using education to increase all plastics-collection volumes, without appropriate investment in sorting, processing and market development, has the potential to weaken the hard-won economic viability of today’s high-value materials. 

Advocates of educating without numbers argue that bales of mixed plastics can be sold to Chinese markets. But market values for mixed plastic bales are low, and there is a cost to the system, and ultimately to the taxpayer or ratepayer, to collect and process these materials.

A more efficient system would collect the materials that have reliable, domestic markets that pay a decent revenue that can offset at least part of the cost of collection and processing.  

Communities and recycling processors may choose to accept all plastic bottles, all plastic containers or all plastics in their programs. They may elect to add the costs, contamination and market uncertainty that come with these programs in the hopes of capturing greater volumes of the more recyclable resins like PET and maximizing diversion from disposal. If they do, abandoning the numbers in education may make sense. But advocating this type of change across the board is shortsighted and ultimately could undermine the significant investments in infrastructure made by industries like PET. 

PET’s reputation as a highly recyclable resin has been earned through decades of investment and effort. All along, the No. 1 resin code was an important tool and still retains the hard-earned equity of this legacy.

Other resins should not be able to ride PET’s coattails into the recycling bin.

Sabourin is executive director of Sonoma, Calif.-based NAPCOR.