How Important Are the Plastic “Numbers” to Recycling?

The relevance of the plastic “numbers”—officially known as the “Resin Identification Codes” or RICs under ASTM D7611—depends on who you ask. Adamant recyclers often believe they are useful, while time and time again both research and anecdotes show that at least half of the population is confused by them, and this confusion can result in recycling stream contamination.

While participating in the ASTM process for the RICs, I found that there is no clear answer as to whether supply chain players actually find the RICs useful. Brand owners and retailers? Not really, as specification requirements for packaging are much more detailed than a number. MRF and recovery facilities? Not really, as lines move too fast for numbers to be identified during hand-picking, and optical sorters certainly don’t use them. Reprocessors? Not really here either, as density and converting technology are more relevant factors. This presents a conundrum: while the RICs were never intended for consumer communication and generally fail at efforts to do so, it seems that consumer communication is the only real potential usefulness of the RICs.

In particular, the widely understood chasing arrows appearing as part of the RIC contribute greatly to the confusion. There has been discussion and pushback on the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR’s) “education without the numbers” campaign (see Plastics News articles here and here for more information), which represents an effort based on solid evidence that shape/format is a much better way to help consumers understand what to recycle. This creates another conundrum, in that certain formats, such as thermoformed clamshells, are made from a variety of resins and thus the differentiation of resin type is often necessary where mixed plastics are not currently accepted. Couple that with the fact that so many local governments and recyclers do educate the general public using the RICs, and the RICs aren’t going away anytime soon.

These conundrums were taken into consideration when the SPC designed the How2Recycle Label. For the “Check Locally” version of the Label—for those materials that have between 20 and 60 percent consumer access—the RIC will likely remain an indicator that local recyclers use to answer recyclability questions regarding packaging bearing this label. The website includes extensive information on the RICs for consumers, and many people ask us questions on the topic of the RICs through our consumer survey.

Simultaneous to the development of the design of the Label, the SPC became involved in the ASTM group working on RICs and continues to advocate for an upgraded system that replaces the chasing arrows and brings more clarity to issues such as varying types of PET and bio-resins. Neither the SPC or APR are advocating for abandoning the RICs, however their use as a primary communication tool for recyclability is necessarily being questioned. The SPC’s and APR’s tools provide a path forward that allows these communication efforts to peacefully co-exist with an updated version of the RICs.

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