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Plastics Recycling: You're Doing it Wrong. And So is Everybody Else!

By 3p Contributor

By Russell Klein

What is going on with your plastic, America?

Are you someone relying on those little numbers in a recycling symbol?  Whether your relationship involves curbside collection, 10-cent refunds, grocery bag fees or foam container bans, as a consumer you’re probably winging it when it comes to managing the largest parts of your plastic habit. Be it resolved right here and today, if you’re not a recycling professional what you know about plastics recovery is wrong.

Do any of the following statements sound familiar? “My building only recycles 1s and 2s!” “Doesn’t that bag have a triangle on it? Put it in the recycling bin!” “Oh! If that bottle has a 7, you need to put it with the compostables!”

If you have uttered any of these things, in fact if you’ve even thought about it, you need to stop.  Why?  If you will bear with me for the next two minutes, I’d like to guide you to become a better-informed steward for the environment.  How?  Why?  For the past 25 years, our modest national efforts to do-the-right-thing by recycling plastic products have suffered from widespread misunderstanding and even marketing disinformation.  Don’t want to be part of the problem?  Consider this an intervention.

To start off, this    is not an indication of recyclability.   Nor are any of these:  

In fact, just to be clear, these emblems are not indicative of:

  • Recyclability

  • Recycled content

  • Compatibility with other products of the same number

  • Sustainable Greeny Goodness

What they are

In the 1980s, the American plastics industry was feeling a squeeze. Environmentalists were concerned over the abandonment of refillable glass and metal vessels by an increased use of disposable, litter-ready plastic bottles. Scrap businesses were finding it hard to sort look-alike plastics, and state legislatures were pushing for a national, codified system to help recyclers identify all of these plastic bottles.

As a result of these pressures, in 1988 the Society of the Plastics Industry (an American trade association) introduced the Resin Identification Codes (RICs), pictured below.  This was a once-in-a-generation, sector-wide initiative, intended to address the concerns of environmentalists, industrialists and state governments seeking a way to tame and organize the matter of plastics recovery.  Placed on the bottom of plastic bottles,  markings depicting numbers inside a triangle of chasing arrows identified the six most commonly used plastics (also known as resins), with a seventh class as a catchall for everything else.

Borrowing the “chasing arrows” from the internationally-recognized recycling Möbius Strip quickly proved controversial, and to this day this system conveys far less than self-appointed recycling gurus assume.  We will come back to this.

At the time of their launch, these marks were solely intended to help waste sorters identify the plastics used in bottles. The markings were placed on the bottom of the bottles so they would not affect consumer purchasing decisions. Indeed, they were never meant to be used by the general public at all!  Bottles were the original target of the Resin Identification Codes as they were the most readily collected, sorted and remarketed plastic scrap available.  Nonetheless, it was only a year after the RICs' introduction that manufacturers of other forms, so-called “rigid plastics” (e.g. buckets, baskets, wide-mouthed jars), were invited to participate in this marking system as well.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the system to outgrow its cradle.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, states all over the country rushed to adopt language to drive public recycling in the wake of a famous national garbage scandal (Homework:  look up The Mobro 4000).  As a result, community messaging and commercial product marketing aimed at the general public began to reference the RICs to define plastic recycling opportunities and to guide consumer behaviors. Unfortunately, this simultaneously created two major, national misperceptions:  Forever after the public would a) look for the chasing arrows for reassurance of end-of-life product options, and b) rely upon RIC numbers as the end-all be-all arbiter of which plastic container should go where.  Thus, even communities who in the early days may have known enough to ask exclusively for bottles marked with 1s or 2s nonetheless eventually found their recycling containers filled with all kinds of dissimilar — and ultimately useless – packaging forms.

Why is it useless?  What is it that thwarts recyclability when plastics of a single number are lumped together?  There are two things; the first is chemistry.  Think of it this way: Every major product shape represents a different manufacturing process.  A bottle, a laundry basket and a trash bin may all contain the ingredient high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or No. 2), nonetheless, their chemical recipes are as different as their forms because each was manufactured for a different purpose, in a different manner, by a different machine.  The recipe that works for a machine that air-inflates bottles all day is not the same as that which is required for a machine injecting plastics into molded cups.  Nonetheless, because each manufacturer began with high-density polyethylene, both objects are marked on the bottom with the No. 2 triangle.  However, melt these products together for recycling purposes and you get … a smelly, chunky mess that's useless to either manufacturer.

Pretty devastating, huh?  So when does recycling actually work?

Consumer product recycling is only possible when you have three things going for you: consistent, post-consumer collections; economical remanufacturing; and consistent consumer demand.  If you cannot efficiently collect similar products to send to a manufacturer, you lose economy of scale.  If the used materials are too contaminated, too expensive to process (clean or sort) or too costly to ship across country, you may lose customers to your competitor in the next region or to companies selling only virgin materials. Bear in mind, clean post-consumer goods are hard to guarantee.  Sometimes what seems like a little bit of contamination in your plastic, paper or glass may produce discolored newsprint, bottles with cracks or jars with bubbles.  Nonetheless, consumers expect recycled products to be just as good as the original material … but less expensive. In reality, this is very hard to do in the absence of a well-trained, committed community that properly sorts its recyclables.

So, now the resin codes (RICs) are applied across products of all shapes and chemical variations, occasionally for the misguided, commercial advantage of ‘green credentials.’  So how does one know when a number in a recycling triangle is a legitimate indication of something?  The answer is: By and large, you don’t. Assuming a single recycling program would attempt to recover only all No. 1s, or only all No. 2s, thereby including bottles, cups, buckets, wall trim, action figures, etc., as we said before, manufacturers downstream would quickly find that melting such products together produces only a colorful, chunky, contaminated mess. To reiterate: Within the RICs, there are too many chemical variants distributed among too few categories.

At this point, as a concerned consumer, you’re beginning to recognize two major problems: a meaningless number and a misleading recycling sign.  If you’re still determined to use these marks to understand what is recyclable in your home or office collection, ask yourself a question: How could a bottling company 400 miles away possibly know what’s acceptable in this particular neighborhood or office building?  Alternatively, was the product imported from manufacturers abroad?  In that case, a meaningful indication of recyclability is even less likely.

The bottom line is: this numbered system so beloved – or hated – by consumers everywhere wasn’t meant for you, the consumer, and fell apart early on.  It’s time to let it go in favor of something better.  And to those of you who continually argue with your spouse – or your local recycling office – over the recyclability of a strawberry container “because it has a number one!” … Cut it out.  Let it go.  It’s over.

Epilogue. Where does this leave a conscientious recycler?

  1. Ask your local government recycling office what products are mandated for recycling in your community. If you receive collection from a private company (at your office, school or apartment building), ask the property manager for a clear description of acceptable materials. Although most recyclers sort based upon shape (e.g. bottles, trays, tubs, etc.), it is possible your collection representative will offer you literature that remains mired in Resin Identification Code numbers. While you might offer to assist their future efforts to clarify this information (via the recycling center relevant to your community), until then you should follow the rules as given.

  2. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) publishes the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims ("Green Guides").  First published in 1996 and most recently revised in 2012, this document explains to manufacturers and consumers exactly what kinds of qualifications are required when suggesting recyclability or recycled content to American consumers.

  3. The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), in cooperation with ASTM International and a cross-section of government, consumer and manufacturing stakeholders has announced it will soon be asking its members to replace the chasing arrows of the Resin ID codes with numbers in a solid, closed triangle.  This compromise allows industry members to avoid inappropriate marketing claims while not spending millions of dollars for major retooling of machinery.

  4. There is a growing on-package labeling program that organizes manufacturers, brand owners, and retailers around a common system that is applicable to all materials. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of the US non-profit, GreenBlue, is currently working with dozens of national brands and retailers to grow the How2Recycle Label Program, a labeling system designed to ensure its members comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s recommendations, mentioned above.
FINAL THOUGHT: Your local recycling opportunities always depend upon a) what materials are mandated for recycling by your local government, and b) what [else] is consistently accepted by your school, home or office recycling collection service?

To keep the dialogue going, if you can find your municipality’s list of required recyclables online, please paste it below in the comments section or share the link.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

Before his recent move to private industry, Russell Klein was the District of Columbia's only municipal recycling educator for over a decade.  During this tenure, he made hundreds of presentations before the public regarding waste reduction, municipal regulatory compliance and stakeholder engagement.  Russell was also responsible for directing (and co-founding) the Material Resource Sustainability Internship (MRSI).  This initiative leveraged dozens of public-private partnerships to aggressively prepare college students for environmental stewardship roles as well as future career opportunities.  Follow Russell on Twitter @WasteWhys

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