Resin ID codes could get upgraded

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Additional changes could be coming for the Resin Identification Code, those little numbers and letters on the bottom of plastic bottles and containers that touch millions of lives every day.

A plastics industry group already has agreed to replace the "chasing arrows" that surround the numbers with a solid triangle.

And now members of that ASTM International standards group are on the verge of formally hashing out even more changes that could augment the abbreviations commonly seen under the numbers.

Abbreviations such as PET, HDPE and PP are now commonplace for those who care to look on the bottom of containers and bottles, even if they have to take their glasses off to see.

Consideration is now being given to adding extensions to those abbreviations to further identify variations and characteristics of the seven resin groups now identified through the coding system.

This could help reclaimers better identify and sort the plastics for recycling.

The group, said Thomas Pecorini, is "not looking to make any major additions in the numbers, but perhaps some additional modifications to the abbreviations that might allow people to say this one contains filler or that sort of thing."

Pecorini, a technology fellow at Eastman Chemical Co., is chairman of the Resin Identification Code subgroup of the plastics recycling committee at ASTM, an international standards organization that took responsibility for the coding system from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. SPI, a trade group, developed the RIC system back in 1988.

By considering extensions to the current abbreviation system, the group has tried to "really look at: Are there ways to provide a little bit more of a definition in still somewhat of a generic sense?" he said.

An extension, for example, could identify if a resin has a high melt flow or low melt flow, information that could help recyclers.

A ballot containing proposed changes is going out to members of ASTM's plastics recycling subcommittee this month for consideration.

David Cornell, technical consultant to the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, is a member of the RIC group. While the ASTM approach to build consensus for change among members can be lengthy, he said the process is valid.

"It's slow, but it works," he said.

Work on changing the codes began shortly after ASTM agreed to take over the standard in 2010.

"There's merit to the effort," he said. "The effort is not without value. And because the value is there to interested parties, there will be continued pursuit of getting the ASTM standards modified."

There previously had been talk about ditching the entire current system in favor of a new approach, Cornell said. But ASTM members decided to instead seek modifications of the existing standards.

Along with the idea of creating extensions for Nos. 1-6 plastics, the ballot will ask members for their feedback on an idea to allow more information to be included for No. 7 plastics, which is a catch-all category for all other resins not covered in the first six categories of the coding system. The idea is to allow No. 7 bottle and container makers to specifically indicate what resin they are using.

"Just saying 'other' doesn't really help anyone figure out what that resin, that 'other,' is if you try to reclaim it," Pecorini said.

While Pecorini indicated he expects there will be plenty of feedback regarding the idea to include extensions for the first six categories under the RIC, he expects there will be less debate over the proposal to allow further explanation of No. 7 plastics.

Those examining the issue, and they've been at it for a while, decided against creating additional numerical categories to identify those 'other' No. 7 resins based on what they saw in China. That's where there are more than 100 numbers to identify different combinations, Pecorini said.

The group instead opted to retain the catch-all No. 7 category with the potential for further explanation through additional lettering.

"We said it's probably easier to just take 7 and add your abbreviation on top of that," he said. "And so the simplest method is just to improve 7, so to speak, as opposed to trying to work with a whole bunch of different codes."

Cornell pointed out there is a financial consideration when contemplating creation of a whole new category, at least in California. That's because the state charges a processing fee for each 1,000 containers placed into the market. While cost is relatively low for PET bottles, for example, the cost rises significantly for No. 7 plastics. These charges are based on a variety of factors, including the marketplace for the containers as well as costs to collect and isolate the containers by their size.

Creating a No. 8 category, for example, could be even more expensive for companies when it comes to state payments. So companies are better off staying with the catch-all No. 7, he explained.

Regardless of whatever changes are eventually approved through the ASTM process, dozens of states around the country still will have to give approval for them to become law.

A total of 37 states currently have legislation that encompasses use of the RIC. Once work has been completed by ASTM, that organization can then start approaching states seeking changes to individual laws.

While that might seem like a daunting task, Pecorini said state legislators are familiar with the ASTM process of vetting new standards. That helps the legislative process along. Also, once a few states accept new standards, others often follow in quick fashion, he said.

Only after states approve the changes does Pecorini expect them, including the switch away from the chasing arrows, to take hold in the marketplace. ASTM decided to ditch the chasing arrows, which has become associated with recycling, because the RIC is intended to identify resin content and not recyclability.

People interested in the subject still have an opportunity to provide their input by joining ASTM and becoming a member of the committee looking into the issue. Details could be finalized sometime in the middle of 2015 after the ideas have worked their way through the ASTM process, Pecorini said.

Cornell added that while the work might be completed next year, he also indicated the review could stretch into 2016.

Cornell cautioned that any additional information placed in the RIC to include variations within the current categories must be done with the consumer in mind.

"That's a useful thing for the reclaimer. We want to be sure it doesn't become a confusion for the household," he said. "We don't want the general public freaking out over extra little indicators. We have enough trouble getting them to cooperate. We don't need to make it harder for them," he said.