WASHINGTON-The SPI chasing-arrows resin identification code may be moving from inconspicuous spots to places of prominence on some packaging labels - a trend that disturbs some code critics. In Federal Trade Commission hearings held Dec. 7-8, the more than 40 participants agreed that changes in federal environmental ad guidelines should focus on how the code is used on plastic packaging.
Mary B. Griffin, a Massachusetts assistant attorney general, environmental protection division, cited an increasing problem with the use of the code by marketers. ``There is a large amount of confusion over the code'' by industry and regulators alike, she said.
William Colden, a New York state environment official and chairman of the National Recycling Coalition's labeling criteria subcommittee, expressed concern about uses of the code outside the context of state law. He said that ``efforts should be made to discourage the code's use as an environmental claim.''
Richard Denison, chief scientist of the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund, noted ``overwhelming evidence'' that consumers equate the code - intended to identify seven resin varieties - with a package's recyclability or recycled content.
Thirty-nine states have adopted use of the SPI code as an identification device on rigid plastics. Use of the code on flexible products generally is voluntary. The SPI code was part of a host of questions about the advertising and promotion of environmental claims broached in special hearings called to review the 1992 FTC guidelines.
Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. remains adamant it will not brook change to the code or its definition as a symbol of a resin's type for reference by professional recyclers only. Larry Thomas, SPI president, sounded that view in the Dec. 7 testimony period concerning the code and its use.
However, a University of Illinois researcher, who also testified, said some firms may be guilty of putting the SPI code in informational statements that appear on their labels, including laundry detergents.
Brenda J. Cude, an extension specialist with the University of Illinois' Cooperative Extension Service in Urbana-Champaign, made observations as a result of her audits of supermarket shelves. Results of three of those audits are published in ``Trends in Environmental Marketing Claims Since the FTC Guidelines,'' finished in May by Cude and University of Utah researchers Robert Mayer, Jason Gray-Lee and Debra Scammon.
``Exactly when it [the SPI code] becomes a claim is not clear. I don't think we have any consumer data that's conclusive,'' Cude said. ``It's like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Certainly FTC has not taken a position when it becomes a claim.''
The FTC has followed the axiom of ``prominent display - and in the proximity to text'' when deciding an infraction to the current guidelines.
Cude's survey also notes that environmental claims have increased 14 percent since the adoption of the FTC guides.
A published summary of the study contends ``... the marketplace is a Tower of Babel when it comes to environmental symbols.'' A ``Mobius loop'' design, ``is used in a highly inconsistent and unqualified fashion. Several firms and industries also use their own environmental symbols.
``All this leaves consumers potentially confused and/or cynical,'' the study concludes.
In praise of the FTC guides, the survey notes, ``some of the more problematic types of environmental claims ... have either decreased in frequency or remained at very low levels.''
But, ``Despite the improvements that have occurred, several problem areas still exist. Most notably, recyclability claims are poorly qualified. If anything, sellers are moving away from qualification by increasing their reliance on exhortations to recycle relative to information about the availability of recycling facilities,'' the survey continues.
``Whereas it is understandable that sellers would want to `fudge' their claims in light of the rapidly changing status of recycling facilities, the vast majority of recyclability claims suggest that recycling is unproblematic.'' Bank said the FTC staff concerned with advertising claims will recommend changes to the 1992 guidelines to the commission, or suggest new public hearings for further discussion.