For a long time, some recyclers -- and even more municipalities -- have had a big problem with the resin identification code. Now someone is stepping up and proposing a plan that could be an alternative -- and, frankly, a major improvement. But this is a decision that impacts recyclers, processors, toolmakers, product designers, resin suppliers -- just about everyone in the plastics industry. So let's consider this next move carefully. PN staff reporter Mike Verespej wrote about the new "Education Without Numbers" campaign last week. His story -- "Drive ditches recycling codes" -- quickly became one of the best-read on our website. Patty Moore, president of Moore Recycling Associates Inc., helped develop the program for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers with funding support from the American Chemistry Council. She told PN that it was "essential that we move plastic recycling beyond the numbers because, in my opinion, the RIC [resin identification code] is holding back recycling." That's not a new complaint. More than a year ago, Mike wrote about a survey of recycling officials from 29 states which found that an overwhelming majority thought the codes are "confusing to the public and hinder recycling efforts." At the time, more than three-quarters of those surveyed -- or 77 percent -- said they get phone calls and emails from people saying they don't understand the codes. Even more, 88 percent, said the general public doesn't understand why municipalities can't accept all plastics. But the concerns about the recycling code go back much farther. I've been hearing complaints about the "chasing arrows" resin ID codes -- and how the plastics industry was using them -- for 20 years. Recyclers say the code adds an unnecessary layer of confusion and prevents more plastics from being recycled. Putting the code on a container implies to some consumers that their community will accept them in the recycling stream. But the reality is the code doesn't have a lot of meaning for most recyclers. If you want to recycle PET and polyethylene bottles, for example -- the most commonly recycled materials -- then you might think of thermoformed PET containers and polyethylene grocery bags as contaminants. But try explaining that to consumers who just want to do the right thing and recycle as much plastic as they can. The resin codes were created 24 years ago to help recyclers sort different types of plastics. But few recyclers sort any containers by hand these days. And the resin ID code is too small and difficult to read on many bottles to have much purpose. So if most recyclers don't want the resin ID codes, then they've outlived their purpose -- right? The answer may be more complicated. First, APR's "Education Without Numbers" campaign doesn't really replace the resin identification code. Rather it would create graphics that communities can use on fliers, websites and signage to educate consumers about the plastics they collect. Second, "Education Without Numbers" isn't the only alternative. Earlier this year, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition started to roll out its own program -- a voluntary Package Recovery Label System -- also aimed at reducing consumer confusion. And don't forget that ASTM International Inc. is knee-deep in its plans to update the existing resin identification code -- adding new categories and more specific information to help consumers and recyclers. That project will take time, but it's also likely to come up with improvements to the existing codes. Can resin ID codes coexist with "Education Without Numbers"? The answer is yes -- although some recyclers might not be happy with that option. Our sister publication Waste & Recycling News had an interesting take on the subject in this week's editorial column (their cartoon, by Leo Michael, is below). The column, "Changing plastics numbering system a good start," applauds APR's motives, but adds that "we fear yet another labeling system is only going to puzzle, annoy and discourage people who want to recycle." The recycling industry's goal, according to WRN, should be to be able to handle a single stream of all plastics, including bags, foam and film. "It's our job to figure out how to sort and process it all," the newspaper wrote. "It's a lofty goal for sure, given the wide-ranging physical and chemical characteristics of the different plastics." That's a great point. It's definitely in the plastics industry's interest to take that big-picture approach.
Should we ditch the resin identification codes?
Do you have an opinion about this story? Do you have some thoughts you'd like to share with our readers? Plastics News would love to hear from you. Email your letter to Editor at [email protected]