June 11, 2013
An ASTM International plastics committee has announced a big change to the Resin Identification Code: The iconic chasing-arrows symbol will be replaced by a solid, equilateral triangle.
The RIC — Nos. 1-7 inside three chasing arrows — appears on the bottom of plastic packaging. It was never intended to advertise a package’s recyclability, only to identify resin content. But the chasing-arrows symbol, which is often associated with recycling, confused some consumers. By replacing the arrows with a triangle, the code “helps bring focus back to the system’s core mission: resin identification and quality control prior to recycling,” ASTM said in a news release.
The change answers a strong plea from municipal recyclers and other recycling organizations that interact with the general public, said Thomas Pecorini, a technology fellow at Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical Co. and a member of ASTM subcommittee D20.95.01, which handles the code.
There will be a transitional period in switching to the triangle, Pecorini said, by phone. The new symbol will only be required on new items; molds already in place won’t have to be changed right now.
The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. has heard various responses on the change from its members.
“Some members are pleased with the change, as they believe the modification ... helps clarify that the code is designed for resin-identification purposes and not recyclability,” said Melissa Hockstad, vice president of science, technology and regulatory affairs for the Washington-based trade association.
Some processers and mold makers have questioned how the change will impact the parts or molds they make, she said in an email.
While changes are not required to be made right away, some companies might incur costs when molds have to be updated, she said.
Changes to the RIC could be hampered by state legislation — 37 states have laws that require the RIC in its original form to be used on plastic bottles or containers. Moving from chasing arrows to a solid triangle should satisfy some state requirements, but others might still require the arrows, at least on some items like single-use water bottles, Pecorini said.
The committee is trying to avoid having two completely different sets of codes, he said.
State representatives are included in the ASTM subcommittee and the organization is focusing on outreach.
Most states will wait until additional changes are finalized before changing their laws, Pecorini said.
States generally don’t like their legislation to be a living document; they don’t want a law that says packages have to adhere to the current version of the RIC, whatever that happens to be. They instead take a “cut and paste approach,” Pecorini said.
SPI developed the RIC in 1988 to help recyclers identify and sort plastics prior to recycling.
However, items move too quickly down a sorting line for the code to be used for that purpose, Pecorini said.
According to ASTM, the symbol is now used by municipalities, scrap brokers, recyclers, manufacturers, consumers and others in deciding the end-of-life destination of plastics materials.
SPI handed over the RIC to technical standards organization ASTM International in 2008. The ASTM subcommittee on recycled plastics published D7611, Standard Practice for Coding Plastics Manufactured Articles for Resin Identification, in 2010.
There were prior attempts to modify the RIC, but the code had become so entrenched that changes were difficult to implement, Pecorini said.
“We’re taking on the challenge,” he laughed.
The current ASTM D7611 gives codes for the six most commonly found resin types, in order from Nos. 1-6: PET, which it identifies as PETE; high density polyethylene (HDPE); PVC (V); low density PE (LDPE); polypropylene (PP); and polystyrene (PS).
All other resins, including materials made with more than one type of resin from Nos. 1-6, are marked with a No. 7.
Part of the committee’s ongoing efforts include finding a better way to label other individual resins — such as polylactic acid, polycarbonate, ABS and nylon — that are currently grouped under No. 7.
There’s an ongoing debate over whether the committee should add numbers to the code or if it should use text or other modifications to identify or describe the resin, Pecorini said.
The committee is also discussing the need for a new code to identify linear LDPE, to distinguish LLDPE products from HDPE or LDPE; a way to differentiate between different melt flows within each resin; and how to identify certain additives that might significantly change the properties of a resin.
Though the committee went through early periods of intense debate and discussion, the group is making good progress and has reached consensus on the majority of issues, Pecorini said. Not an easy task for “something of this magnitude, with so many players in the value chain having stakes,” he said.
Some of the proposed RIC changes should go up for a vote in the next three to six months. By this time next year, some, if not most, of the changes should be in place, he said.
“I’m pretty comfortable we’re on a pretty straight line now,” he said. “We’ve got consensus on where to go and what changes need to be made.”
ASTM, headquartered in West Conshohocken, Pa., has invited anyone interested in contributing to potential revisions to ASTM D7611 to join the task group working on the new standard, D20.95.01.
SPI is also encouraging its members to participate in the committee and “to get involved in the discussion as future changes may impact them,” Hockstad said.
SPI will present a June 27 webinar on the RIC. Pecorni will be a featured speaker.