The SPI Resin Identification Code (RIC), now the property of ASTM, an international standards organization, was created in 1988 to help recycling stakeholders know which plastic was being used for containers. Required on certain containers in 39 states in the U.S., the RIC names six resins without defining them and provides a seventh number for all others.
Over the years the self-policing policy has worked well, but as the industry has grown, important questions have been raised about the system.
The Association of Plastic Recyclers has proposed a ballot (D7611M-13) for ASTM consideration that will help answer some of those questions. It defines items with the same code number as those made of materials that have similar chemistry and manufacturing processing characteristics, as well as performance properties, but colors are not included.
Along with this definition, APR recommends a mechanism to add numbers and some examples of proper use. Through this proposal, plastics with the same number have more value than a mix of unrelated plastics. This added value will lend continued support to plastics recycling as a thriving industry.
Recyclers find the RIC an extremely effective tool in identifying the resin used to make the primary part of an item, such as a bottle. Although automation helps in sorting, recyclers rely on the code for training and final decision-making. It is particularly useful for developing markets and determining the composition of new product innovations.
Difficult for brand owners
Consumer brand companies often find the RIC challenging. Many brands strive for a specific number and create material blends that might be predominantly one material.
However, the blend may have an impact on the recyclability of the product. Some have pushed the limits of the system by using a code for the predominant material, but at the same time they will add additional materials that can significantly change the behavior of the container in reclamation and reuse. These hybrids can cause contamination of the recycling stream. “The APR Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability” provides excellent guidance to help companies determine if their package contributes to contamination in the recycle stream.
The RIC has led to some consumer confusion as well. Many consumers do not understand what the numbers mean and mistakenly associate them with recycled content and recyclability. There are better tools to educate consumers, including the SPC’s How2Recycle label. Municipalities have made recent moves to add language and graphics to further explain the types of containers their recycling programs accept, but they often also use the RIC to help consumers understand what they can recycle.
The RIC is not intended to declare recyclability or the presence of recycled content. It is not a “recycling code,” but it is relied on by recyclers to understand what the material is and how it will behave in reclamation. It is an education tool on many levels.
The 28-year-old code is being considered for updating by ASTM. APR’s suggestions for this update are detailed below:
- PET (No. 1), the resin used for carbonated soft drinks and single use water bottles, comes from a family of polyester plastics. Not all polyester plastics are compatible with PET in terms of processing and performance. The proposed revision better defines PET on the basis of chemistry and melting characteristics.
- The polyolefin plastics, HDPE, LDPE and polypropylene (PP) as defined by ASTM, are often used in blends. The proposed revision recognizes the common use of blends, and allows small percentages of other polyolefins to be present with HDPE for No. 2, LDPE for No. 4 and PP for No. 5.
- The No. 7 category is a catch-all used for all Nos. 1-6 plastics that contain a layer of other materials, plastics that do not fall into the No. 1 through No. 6 range, blends, or structures with integral metal parts, such as metal reinforcement. The No. 7-coded items do need to be modified to help create a better understanding of what the materials are.
The plastics recycling industry must be actively engaged in the development of these standards. The RIC is an important tool for reclaimers, municipalities, consumer brand companies and others involved in the industry. Continuous improvement must be ensured so that it continues to be a valuable and reliable resource. It is also imperative to recognize that the RIC does not stand alone. It should be supplemented with other tools when used as an educational resource.
Steve Alexander is the executive director of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and can be reached at [email protected]. Nina Goodrich is the executive director of GreenBlue and director of The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) and can be reached at [email protected].