Experts chase options for chasing arrows

Comments Email Print

PITTSBURGH (Nov. 13, 2:45 p.m. ET)  — A panel of experts gave insights on sustainability at the SPE Blow Molding Conference, and while everyone agreed on the importance of going green, they all had different ideas on how to get there.

The most divisive issue was the resin identification code.

The RIC — a number, one through seven, inside a chasing-arrow symbol — appears on the bottom of plastic packaging. The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. developed the code in 1988 as a way to help recyclers identify and sort plastics, but it inadvertently became an ineffective public education tool. In 2008, SPI charged standards-setting organization ASTM International with fixing it.

“What we have is a system that was well-intentioned but doesn’t work the way it was intended,” said Thomas Pecorini, a research fellow at Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical Co. who serves as the technical contact and chairman of ASTM’s D20.95.01, the subcommittee in charge of the RIC.

The current RIC has many problems, Pecorini said. Sorting lines at recycling facilities move too quickly for sorters to make use of the codes. The resin categories are too broad and don’t take into account additives or variations that would inhibit recycling.

The public misunderstands the symbols’ meaning and use: the RIC was never intended for the general public, but municipal recycling facilities thought the code was neat and decided to use it for recycling education. Consequently, people assume that the presence of a code means an item will be recycled, he said.

Sometimes, people use the code to spread misinformation about plastics; for example, the idea that “all sevens are evil” often pops up in the “blogosphere” and mainstream media, Pecorini added. A No. 7 designates “other” plastics that don’t fit into Nos. 1-6 — PET, high density polyethylene, PVC, low density PE, polypropylene and polystyrene, respectively.

“In short, the resin ID codes are a mess,” he joked.

But just changing the RIC isn’t that simple.

“It would be a lot easier to do this starting fresh rather than changing something that’s 25 years old,” Pecorini said.

Currently, 39 states have legally adopted the RIC, so eliminating or adding new numbers or descriptors could be in violation of state laws. While those states are considering changing their laws to reflect changes in the code, it would literally take 30-plus legislative acts to do so, he said.

ASTM is working on changes within the system. One suggestion is to change the chasing arrows to a solid triangle, which would hopefully prevent the public from assuming an item could be recycled, he said.

Adding new numbers might be out of the question, but an identifier could be added to note incompatible variants and No. 7 packages could include the material designation, he said.

There’s also the issue of recycling education.

For companies that want to boost their sustainability image, recyclability has been the easiest and lowest-cost claim to make, said Mylinda Jacobsen, purchasing manager at recycler Envision Plastics Industries LLC.

Companies have taken advantage of consumers not knowing the difference between “recyclable” and “recycled content,” she added.

However, the consumer is changing. “The reality is, we can no longer rely on consumer acceptance of recyclability claims,” Jacobsen said.

Consumers aren’t concerned with chasing arrows; they want printed instructions on how and what to recycle and are more interested in seeing recyclability information on a package than calories, fat or sugar content, she said, citing a study by an undisclosed market research firm.

The public wants a simple system — ideally, something that tells them what items go in the bin and what items don’t — but that can be more difficult than it sounds, Percorini said, adding that recycling isn’t regulated nationally, so accepted items vary by municipality.

During the discussion portion of the panel, the audience threw out its own solutions for identifying materials, ranging from adding quick-response codes to labels to requiring resin makers to put markers in the material that would allow sorters to see the exact makeup of a material.

Jacobsen agreed markers are a good idea, but because contamination is such a big problem at municipal recycling facilities, there also needs to be more work on an ID system.

The ASTM committee has made progress on the RIC and has passed ballots on some issues, he said. The committee is also looking for more representation from converters, he added.

Another speaker on the panel was Surendra Agarawl, the leading plastics adviser at Creative Group of Industries, a custom injection and blow molder based in Mumbai, India. His presentation focused on packaging redesign as a key way to reduce material and improve sustainability.

Thomas Gallagher, Pittsburgh-based technical and innovation manager with Braskem SA of São Paulo, discussed the firm’s success with its sugarcane-based “Green PE.”

The Society of Plastics Engineer’s annual blow molding conference was held Oct. 9-10 in Pittsburgh.