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Failure by Design. Plastic Resin Codes

How One Design Decision Affected the Way Billions Recycle

Burst - Shopify Partners

Today's recycling industry is facing a lot of new challenges. New scrap import regulations imposed by China and reported recycling contamination rates ranging from 3% to 26% across the country have caused municipalities and private recycling companies to scramble. Collectors and processors now need to be able to provide end-markets with a high quality, contamination free product that is still cost effective. Some solutions to the new regulations are focusing public education campaigns on better source separation and decreased contamination rates whereas others are focusing on technological innovations to help Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) to be able to sort out contamination.

To address the new global recycling market, we need to look deeper into the factors that affect the way we recycle. Currently, one of the biggest areas for improvement is the plastic Resin Identification Codes (RICs).

The Universal Recycling Symbol

Growing environmental awareness and concern throughout the 1960s led to the first ever "Earth Day" in 1970. At the same time, the Container Corporation of America hosted a design contest for high schools and colleges across the USA to submit designs that symbolize the recycling process and to raise awareness of environmental issues. This contest was won by 23 year old Gary Anderson; a student at the University of Southern California. The design he submitted that was inspired by the Mobius strip has now become synonymous with recycling around the world. Regarding the design, Anderson said:

Universal Recycling Symbol

"The figure was designed as a Mobius strip to symbolize continuity. I used the arrows to give directionality to the symbol. I wanted to suggest both the dynamic (things are changing) and the static (it’s a static equilibrium, a permanent kind of thing)."

The Codes

The use of the Resin Identification Codes began in 1988, implemented by the Society of Plastics Industry as way to help MRF workers identify the different types of plastics for separation. At this time, recycling of plastics were growing and the industry needed a standardized way to identify them.

Here are the original resin identification codes:

Original Resin Identification Codes

In 2008 the administration of the RIC system was taken over by ASTM International, an international standards organization that develops and publishes technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems, and services. With the change in administration, the RIC’s were modified in 2013. Below are the updated and current symbols that are used, manufacturers of plastics now have two design options:

What's wrong with the system?

From my time in the waste and recycling industry, the confusion around different types of plastics is one of the most difficult aspects of recycling programs and one of the biggest challenges of creating education campaigns. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “It has the recycling symbol on it so it’s recyclable!” at public education events and training sessions. The reality here is the general public can’t be blamed for coming to that conclusion. Recycling plastics is very confusing.

The initial design was built for failure. The first and biggest mistake was incorporating the universal recycling symbol into the design of the resin identification codes. The purpose of these codes was never to identify that a material was recyclable. The codes were intended to help recycling facility workers identify the different types of plastics. If the codes were not intended to connect plastics and recycling, why was the universal recycling symbol used? Doing so created an association that was misleading. Coincidentally, some plastics with the codes are actually recyclable in most recycling programs but, by having the universal recycling symbol on the code they created a positive association between the code and a material being recyclable.

Changing the codes didn't help. As mentioned before, ASTM International changed (I use the word changed really loosely here) the design of the codes in 2013 to remove to universal recycling symbol. They began to realize that including the universal recycling symbol in the design was misleading people to believe that all items with the code was recyclable.

Regardless, a change is a positive step; until you compare the "original" to the "new" symbol.

Even though the universal recycling symbol isn’t exactly displayed as it’s designed, the triangle shape can still be easily associated with the recycling symbol. There is 25 years of association between this symbol and being able to recycle that item that needs to be broken. This change is not enough of a difference to do that.

There are 7 codes and 31 general types of plastics. The most important aspect of the recycling industry is collect, sort, and separate the different commodities that have the ability to be recycled. Not all of these 31 plastics carry the ability to be recycled right now due to financial, logistical, or chemical reasons. To recycle what we can, industry members must build education programs to communicate the way those acceptable materials must be placed into collection bins in order for the process to work. Communicating which plastics are acceptable in a recycling program becomes extremely difficult when educators only have 7 categories to effectively say what is acceptable, and what is not.

What do we do?

The answer to that question right now is actually really tough, and there aren't many great answers. There isn’t a "cookie cutter" solution given the combined complexity and variability of the plastics industry, the scrap/recycling industry, and communication methods to the general public. Here are some options:

  • Create a system where all plastics can be recyclable.
  • More detailed codes to make communication easier.
  • Change the codes completely away from numbers.

What I do know is this: the industry needs help. But if we weren’t so dependent on plastics in our daily life, this problem wouldn’t be so big, and we wouldn’t need to spend so much time and money trying to figure it out.

My name is Jason, I write on a number of topics on sustainability, the environment, and anything else that catches my attention. If you like what you read, I'd appreciate a tip. Maybe one day they'll cover the cost of the coffee I drink every day.