Just because a plastic package is recyclable, that doesn't mean the package gets recycled.
The Association of Plastic Recyclers is out to improve plastic packaging recycling through a set of what the trade group calls protocols to help guide brand owners and packaging makers through the issue.
The resin identification code has been a success over the years in helping consumers identify what types of plastics they are using.
But the code, at its core, is a bit of a misnomer as it was not originally designed to serve as a recycling symbol. The use of the chasing arrows, along with the code, has helped push recycling percentages higher. But the symbol itself does not assure a product will be recycled.
The odds of a small item, like a lip balm container, making it through the collection, sortation and recycling system are remote, for example.
"So what we've done is set up this protocol," said APR Executive Director Steve Alexander. "Essentially it's an average of about 15 MRFs [material recovery facilities]."
The goal is to have established guidelines that allow brand owners and packaging designers to determine whether their packaging will be recycled through the latest technology in sorting equipment.
Finished protocols include consideration of packaging size, the use of near infrared technology to determine resin content, and any potential metal components integrated into packaging. APR, with the help of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc., is now working on the last and most difficult criteria.
That work, which Alexander hopes will be finished by the end of the year, involves both the two-dimensional and three-dimensional aspects of packaging.
Mechanical sortation of materials, not just plastics, at MRFs rely on dimensional characteristics for certain separation techniques. But those operations are not foolproof as different materials with similar characteristics can contaminate each other's recycling streams.
A crushed high density polyethylene milk jug, for example, can find its way into the cardboard recycling stream because they handle similarly when being run through the sortation equipment.
MRFs also are designed to allow small contaminants to fall through the sorting equipment and be separated as trash. But this also means that small plastic packaging, which could be recycled, ends up becoming waste.
"If you can't sort it properly, and I'm quoting a MRF guy here, it's just trash," Alexander said. "That's what we're trying to avoid here. The first-ever activity like this that we're aware of that's being done."
Kara Pochiro, communications director at APR, also is involved with the project.
"It's not plastics specific. The protocols can be used for any commodity," she explained. "Our definition of recyclability really depends on access, sorting and then the ability to be processed into a new material. If they can't be sorted correctly, it won't continue into the process and it won't be recycled," she said.
"The sorting protocols are integral to determine the recyclability of any material," Pochiro said.
APR and ISRI are working with the most up-to-date MRF technology in determining the protocols. Research has been conducted at several locations around the country with a goal of creating guidelines that will be applicable to most sorting facilities.
A wrinkle in that approach is that MRFs, while similar, are not all the same. Not by a long shot. Designs and technology evolve over time.
"What we want to get away from is people putting the recycling symbol and labels on containers that can't be sorted properly and end up being diverted to landfills," Alexander said.
The finished protocols are available on the APR's website at www.plasticsrecycling.org under the APR Design Guide tab. Then click on "test methods."
APR revealed the protocol project as part of the group's meeting in The Woodlands, Texas, near Houston.