For more than 20 years, the plastics industry has been plagued by seven little numbers inside three little arrows.
The Resin Identification Code, controversial since its birth in 1988, has arguably done more to help, and hinder, the recycling industry than anything else.
Using numbers to identify resin families may have been great idea in theory, and some will argue in practice, but it's proven impossible to sort every possible resin variant into one of seven broad categories.
The RIC's role in educating the public was unintentional, but it's been at least partially effective — PET recyclers can attest to that.
Unfortunately, the public finds the codes confusing. A quick perusal of the comments section on any “green living” blog brings up dozens of examples of average, everyday people puzzled by the symbol on the bottom of their laundry detergent bottle.
A friend of mine was shocked to find out, during a chat while cleaning up after a barbecue, that the mere presence of an RIC doesn't mean something can, or will, be recycled.
“But it has arrows on it,” she protested, when I put a (No. 6) foam cup into a trash bag instead of the recycling bin.
Who can blame them? The RIC's chasing-arrows symbol is (nearly) identical to the universally recognized symbol for recycling — a three-arrowed M"bius strip, created in the early ‘70s, that appears on recycling bins, in ad campaigns and on products to indicate that something is either made of recycled content or can be recycled. Why would its appearance on plastic mean anything else?
Thankfully, the industry agrees that the codes need work. After two decades, in 2008, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. handed its codes over to ASTM for upgrading. The international standards group has been working to retool the RIC without violating state laws (39 states have legislation that requires the codes, in their current form, to appear on plastics packaging) or alienating segments of the industry.
We can all agree that the codes aren't working, but no one can agree on a solution. And that's the real problem.
In a panel discussion last month at the SPE annual blow molding conference, Eastman Chemical Co.'s Thomas Pecorini, chairman of the ASTM committee tackling the RIC, outlined the issues. His committee's ideas included changing the chasing arrows to a triangle — which would alleviate the “arrow equals recyclable” concerns — and adding identifiers alongside the numbers. Both changes tiptoe around existing state legislation.
The panel's audience had its own suggestions on what to do, ranging from expanding 1-7 to include new numbers (a suggested marred, once again, by existing legislation) to using molecular markers or scannable QR codes to assist sorters.
Every suggestion had its opposition. Molecular markers and QR codes could work, but that's something the industry would need to mandate, not the ASTM, and even then, who would develop and pay for them? Changes like that would impact every segment of the plastics packaging industry.
Sorting aside, there's the matter of convincing the public to recycle. Facilities vary by municipality, so there's no national, or even state, regulation of what items go in curbside recycling bins. Attempting that regulation would undoubtedly result in cries of “big government.” That leaves us with some systems that only accept Nos. 1 and 2, for example, and others that accept everything.
Add in recycling programs in apartment buildings, offices, campuses and venues, and the matter becomes more complicated. While some favor municipal facilities accepting everything and tackling sorting behind the scenes, other groups point out the complications and costs.
Plastics News reported on the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers' campaign, Education Without Numbers, and the backlash that followed. While the campaign's suggestion of ditching the code was short-sighted, the campaign had solid ideas — using graphics to show consumers what items can go in their recycling bin, for example.
Unfortunately, the campaign will go down as an example of how divisive the RIC problem is. And with the recycling rate last year just under 30 percent, the industry can't afford to keep squabbling in lieu of enacting real changes.
For every consumer convinced that arrows mean recycling, there's another, more outspoken one, citing that 30 percent as an example of what's wrong with plastics. The public is catching on and the growing bag-ban trend is evidence the industry doesn't need any additional bad PR.
The resin code issue is sprawling and complicated with industrywide implications and a mess of legislation and public policy to wade through, but finding a solution is going to require a united front. It's time for the industry to get it together.