How Can Packaging Plastic Recycle Rates Be Increased? –A Good Start

Posted on 10/29/2014 8:42:45 AM By Jeff Timm

The National Recycling Coalition NRC) recently updated their definition of recycling: "Recycling is a series of activities by which material that has reached the end of its current use is processed into material utilized in the production of new products."  How can something that appears so simple be so complex?  

packaging disposal, packaging disposal signage bin

Let’s take a look at why plastic recycling rates, specifically plastic bottle packaging recycling, seem stuck in a rut.


Hopefully, sometime in 2015 the ASTM Section D20.95.01 Committee will finalize modifications to the D7611 - Standard Practice for Coding Plastic Manufactured Articles for Resin Identification document that standardizes the usage of the Resin Identification Codes (RIC).  In 2008, the Society of the Plastic Industry (SPI) asked ASTM to update the RICs and convert them into ASTM standard format.  ASTM standards are developed utilizing a rigorous development process involving all stakeholders and are recognized and accepted worldwide.  The RICs are the 1-7 numbers within the familiar “chasing arrow” symbol that has been used to identify plastic resin for recycling since their introduction 26 years ago.

2 HPDE, hdpe


The reason that ASTM is revising these symbols in both design and usage is because for 26 years they have been misused.  What?!  Misused for 26 years seems incredibly hard to believe!  Some background follows.

RIC Background

Many studies have identified that RICs and the act of recycling is a difficult and confusing event for a typical consumer.  Here is some analysis from Earth 911 and Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI):

recycling, recycling plastics

Thomas Pecorini, Chairman of ASTM Section D20.95.01, in a recent webinar—ASTM and the RIC System—discussed the early adoption of these RIC codes. The following are highlights from the webinar with some of my own experiences added for clarification. 

In 1988, the only plastic articles being collected and recycled domestically were polyethylene terephthalate (PET), sometimes referred to as PETE, RIC #1 soda bottles and high density polyethylene (HDPE) RIC #2 milk jugs.  There was movement in the plastic industry to recycle additional resins, but only if these resins could properly be identified in the collection waste stream.  Even the large plastic polymer suppliers, like Dupont and Dow, at that time managed their own in-house plastic recycling centers.  As a result, SPI developed the RIC system to identify the six most common packaging resins found in the municipal waste stream.  A seventh code was added to cover “other” resins not identified as part of the 1-6 types.  The seventh code was also used to segregate articles manufactured from combinations of resins in or out of the 1-6 types like multi-layered sheet and film which could not be easily separated in the recycle waste stream.    

Additional “expanded” codes are often used with PET (RIC #1).  Crystalline PET, commonly referred to as CPET, is used for freezer to microwave trays for frozen meals are also recyclable and commonly carry the RIC #1 as well.  In addition, a PET copolymer, polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified (PETG/PET-G) and amorphous polyethylene terephthalate (A-PET), are also often the material of choice for sheet production which is converted to thermoformed articles and also commonly carry the RIC #1 code.

The code system “was meant to be optional and was implemented to help sorters in a municipal recycling facility (MRF) manually separate resins.”   It was discovered that sorters couldn’t use the RICs as intended because articles on sorting lines moved too quickly.  It became apparent that many compositions within each resin are not recyclable with each other.  Municipal recycling programs began using the RICs as a public education tool, and the general public assumed that any article marked with a “chasing arrow” is collected for recycling.  The RICs were never meant to be used by the general public as they were never intended to suggest that items marked with the codes are collected for recycling.  Twenty-six years later, the only plastic articles recycled in the U.S. are still basically PET and HDPE bottles.

Recycled Plastic – Current State      

recycling bin


PET and HDPE bottles accounted for 97.8% of all plastic bottles recycled in 2013 with polypropylene making up the last 2.1 %.  By comparison, PET and HDPE account for 96.0% with PP representing 2.0% of the U.S. plastic bottle market share so the percent of recycle by plastic type mirrors nicely the market share of each of these plastic types. 

However, plastic bottle recycle rates are a mere 30.9%, up only a lowly 0.4% from 2012 even though poundage increased by a healthy 4.3%.   All the above data and much more is available in the 2012 United States National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report.  This study is a cooperative effort between the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR).

ASTM Steps In

Through the ASTM Section D20.95.01 Committee and membership process, some stakeholder agreement has already been developed and a clear direction is emerging.

  • Convert SPI language into ASTM format
  • Remove the chasing arrow tips, since they no longer serve their original purpose, in order to minimize the misconception that all articles marked with the RIC are collected for recycling.  These revisions were put into practice in 2013 utilizing an equilateral triangle without the “chasing arrows.”  This was further necessitated by the issuance of the revised Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims.  These claims mandate that identifying articles as recyclable, as the “chasing arrows” implied, are only to be used when an item can actually be recycled where recycling facilities are available to at least 60% of the consumers or communities where a product is sold.  This changes the identification of a recyclable article to be recycled only if it is in an area where recycle infrastructure is available.  This adds another level of complexity to the recycle value chain as it includes a geographical component based on the point of sale.   Therefore, more than just the plastic type must be considered when one must determine recyclability.  This makes declarative statements about recyclability of an article almost impossible on a national basis.      

ric code

To further complicate things, the chasing arrows can still be used to indicate the process of recycling, like placement on the side of a recycle bin/container. 

recycling symbol

According to the SPI, improper use of the RIC can have serious ramifications for individual manufacturers and could jeopardize the integrity of the coding system. Therefore, all users of the code are encouraged to adhere diligently to the following guidelines in keeping with the core purpose of the RIC codes as facilitating the recovery of post-use plastics through resin identification and quality control prior to recycling:

  • Use the code on bottles and rigid containers in compliance with about 30 state and several foreign country laws now in effect that legislate demands for all consumer packages fitting certain size and functional parameters feature a RIC.
  • Use the code solely to identify resin content.
  • Comply with the revised FTC Green Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims whenever the code is used.
  • Make the code inconspicuous at the point of purchase so it does not influence the consumer's buying decision.
    • Do not modify the elements of the code in any way (i.e., do not replace the resin acronym in the code).
    • Do not make recycling claims in close proximity to the code, even if such claims are properly qualified.
    • Do not use the term "recyclable" in proximity to the code.
    • Provide enough detail around each resin to make the RICs more useful when articles are at their end of life.

The Future for RICs

As the ASTM Section D20.95.01 Committee multi-stakeholder collaborative process moves forward slowly, they are conscious of a number of dynamics that need to be kept in mind. Any new identification system needs to be clear and an obvious improvement or states may not adopt it.

For example the group is assessing how to:

  • Differentiate between different melt flows within each resin;
  • Identify certain additives that might significantly change the properties of a resin;
  • Add new identification numbers for additional resins (PLA, PC, ABS, nylon, and others) that should be considered with an eye on a hierarchical system that does not add undo confusion to assist post-commercial recycling efforts.  These resins are currently designated as “other” in the current RIC system.  
  • Determine whether a new code is needed for linear low density polyethylene (LLDPE) to enable products made from this technology to be accurately identified and distinguished from products marked as high density polyethylene (HDPE) or low density polyethylene (LDPE).
  • Add information to the resin abbreviations, for example PP for polypropylene or HDPE for high density polyethylene, to differentiate between significant variants within a resin family while maintaining the number within the triangle as the “family” number to identify the overall resin category.  Many compositional variants within a given RIC resin family are not compatible with each other, whereby combining together all material with a common RIC could result in downstream usage of recycled content.  Examples are subsets of PET like A-PET and PETG, as mentioned earlier.
  • The #7 category has its own set of unique issues.  It is the catch-all category designated as “other,” which can be a unique resin like nylon discussed above or it can designate a combination of resins like a multi- layer film pouch.  This catch-all designation needs to be addressed in a thoughtful manner.

A Final Thought

The RIC identification system is not mandatory unless state or government agencies require its usage.  D7611 is merely a document that standardizes the usage of RICs.  However, the RICs have become the defacto identifier in the mind of most consumers looking for information on recycling.  The famous quote, “the devil is in the details” certainly applies as these modifications move through the ASTM revision process.  The recycle value-chain, now required to operate under the umbrella of the FTC Green Guides, has to uneducate those segments of the consuming public who want to recycle and have some knowledge and old beliefs on how the RICs worked.

Having said this, it is hopeful that these modification will be easy to understand and easy to implement.  ASTM has to get it right.  Since it is the role of ASTM to set the standard and not necessarily implement the change, it is up to the recycle value-chain, the plastic industry and the marketplace as a whole to clearly educate the consuming public on the decoupling of the RICs as indicators of recyclability.  

Regarding re-education, some complementary approaches are already catching hold like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) Label for Recovery, which does not employ the RIC codes at all.  This identification method is ideal for multi-material packaging, as well as complying with the FTC Green Guides.

paper box, plastic, recycling

All these approaches are good steps forward to achieving my personal belief that the plastic industry and recycling United States infrastructure can say “mission accomplished” when consumers can look at a package and know they can deposit a recyclable plastic article at a convenience store, sports venue, food retailer, fast-food restaurant, the blue bin in their driveway or any public place wherever and whenever they need to dispose of it.    

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