WASHINGTON — A federal agency has declared for the first time that conspicuous display of the plastics industry's resin identification code is a claim of recyclability, a decision that could limit how prominently it can be displayed on packaging.
The Federal Trade Commission reaffirmed, however, that inconspicuous use of the resin code — three chasing arrows surrounding a number that identifies the resin — remains fine. Inconspicuous use includes putting the code on the bottom of a bottle.
The FTC ruling, part of a new version of its environmental marketing ``Green Guides,'' takes effect May 1.
The decision, issued April 22, appears to end several years of FTC discussions about the proper use of the resin code and how consumers view labels like ``recyclable'' and ``please recycle.''
Environmental groups and state attorneys general told the FTC at hearings in late 1995 that companies increasingly were putting the identification code in prominent places as a marketing claim, leading consumers to assume incorrectly that the packages were recyclable.
But an FTC official said the code generally is used properly.
``There are some companies that do display it prominently, [but] for the most part, companies do display it inconspicuously,'' said Janice Podoll Frankle, an FTC lawyer heavily involved in drafting the guides.
She said the commission does not plan any additional major reviews of the resin code, although the agency will investigate specific complaints.
The FTC ruled that displaying the SPI code close to a product's name will be a violation, unless the product is made from a material that is recyclable for a ``substantial majority'' of consumers. If not, the package should have a disclaimer stating that recycling may be limited.
The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. of Washington is pleased with FTC's decision, and does not think it sets any precedent for future changes, said Lewis Freeman, vice president of government affairs for SPI.
``We have always contended that our code is an information code,'' Freeman said. ``It is OK to continue to use it as it was intended to be used.''
Before the April 22 ruling, FTC had not addressed whether the code implied recyclability.
The rules are a modest improvement and will help curb extreme marketing claims, but they are unlikely to benefit consumers much because the issue does not generate as much attention from government officials as it used to, said Lance King, spokesman for the Athens, Ga.-based GrassRoots Recycling Network.
``When you've got the FTC and the [attorneys general] all concerned about cigarettes and they are going after things like Publishers Clearinghouse, you just don't have the same level of focus'' as the early 1990s, he said.
Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, said many firms, especially plastic bag and flexible packaging makers, display the code even though it was intended for rigid packaging.
But FTC is ``caught between a rock and hard place because so many states have adopted the code'' and the agency does not want to tell those states to change their laws, Denison said. SPI said 39 states have adopted the code.
Edgar Miller, policy director for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Recycling Coalition, said he is glad FTC declared conspicuous use of the code a claim of recycling. He said FTC guidance should clear up confusion about properly using the code on flexible packaging.
The FTC decision also loosens rules on claims for biodegradable plastic bags. It allows manufacturers to claim their products are compostable if they can be composted at home, a decision welcomed by plastic industry officials. Previously, the bags had to be compostable at both home and municipal sites.
The FTC rule also limits use of the phrase ``please recycle'' to products that can be recycled by a substantial majority of consumers. It added that any disclaimers on packages will have to state much more forcefully that a product may not recyclable.
Also expanded is the definition of recycled content to include using reconditioned or used parts.
Miller said NRC is concerned that labeling reconditioned parts as recycled could hurt consumer perceptions of recycled goods, because people may associate recycled goods with lower quality.