European regulators are developing their own recycling symbols for packaging, a step that industry officials fear could ban the SPI chasing arrows resin identification code from European grocery shelves.
The European Union Parliament is likely to consider legislation in September that for the first time would prohibit any recycling or reuse symbols that do not have EU approval, European industry sources said.
If EU prohibits the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s symbol, manufacturers would have to use different sets of symbols for packaging in Europe and the rest of the world, said Bettina Ungerer, legal counsel for European Government Affairs for Amway (Europe) Ltd. in Brussels, Belgium.
A final decision probably is at least 18 months away, and could be complicated by discussions at the International Organization for Standardization on setting a worldwide recycling symbol.
But the American Chamber of Commerce in Europe and Washington-based SPI said the EU proposal could ban the SPI code, if EU officials judge it to be a recycling symbol.
Part of what could stir up regulators is the similarity in design between the SPI chasing arrows symbol, a triangular shape used to identify materials, and the MÃ¶bius strip, which is widely considered a symbol of recyclability and which ISO wants to adopt as the world standard.
The SPI code is mandatory in 39 states, and is used widely in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
An EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the rule would apply only to recycling symbols, not material identification symbols, and would have to be used only if the product makes claims about its recyclability.
The EU official, who was involved in writing the proposal, would not comment on the SPI situation and said any other symbols would have to be considered case by case. Any symbol that is purely an identification code would be allowed, the EU official said. But a single recycling symbol is badly needed to make clear to consumers what products are recyclable or reusable, the official said.
An official with the American Chamber in Europe said EU officials said at a packaging conference in March that the SPI resin code could be mistaken for a recycling symbol.
The U.S. industry argument that the resin code is only an identification symbol is a ``little tongue in cheek,'' and EU officials may consider it a symbol of recyclability, said Julian Carroll, managing director of the industry trade group European Organization for Packaging and the Environment.
The EU is considering an inverted ``C'' as its recycling symbol.
U.S. plastics industry officials argue that the SPI code is not a recycling claim because it is usually placed inconspicuously at the bottom of a package. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has ruled that the SPI symbol in an inconspicuous place is not a claim of recyclability.
One U.S. industry lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Europeans may be using the standard to protect domestic industries, but predicted that ``cooler heads'' will prevail and a compromise will be reached.
The American Chamber of Commerce is taking a backdoor approach, trying to write a specific exemption into ISO's plan for a worldwide recycling symbol, Ungerer said. The exemption would say specifically that the SPI code is different from an environmental symbol and is allowed, she said.
Getting the language in an ISO ruling would make it very difficult for the EU to not specifically recognize the exemption, she said.
The ISO standard is expected in 1999 but industry officials plan to discuss it at a mid-August ISO meeting in Stockholm, Sweden.
Observers said they did not know what the European Parliament might do with the proposal, which comes from the European Commission, the EU's executive branch.