Plastic Recycling Hurdles: Label everything, please!

Okay, so I’m pretty sure I told you all that I can now recycle all plastic items with SPI resin identification codes #1-7 on them, due to a contract between Dartmouth and Coca Cola of Northern New England. Marvelous!

But I’m not quite done.

There are still a number of products I use that have plastic components that aren’t labeled. Lots of plastic containers label the bottom part but not the lid. Sure, the lid is usually smaller than the rest of the container, but I’m still trashing a bunch of waste that could be recycled.

After pondering this problem for a few days, I did what any young, eccentric recycl-aholic would do and started saving plastics that weren’t labeled. After about a month I picked up my laptop and started emailing people. It took the better part of an evening to write up a letter, find contact emails for companies, and then personalize the basic letter for each recipient.

You might think that some of the older, established companies wouldn’t have a web presence, but I didn’t find a single company without a substantial website. Heck, you can even friend some of the companies (e.g. PriceChopper) on FaceBook. WTF?

Corporate craziness aside, I got a number of helpful responses within a week. It seems that most of the manufacturers and companies are interested in increasing the recyclability of their products but are limiting themselves due to the language of the recommendations of the SPI (the plastics industry trade association) and concerns over labeling implying acceptance of the product by all recyclers.

Manufacturers shouldn’t be limiting themselves here — they should be encouraged to label as much of their products as possible so that they can be recycled as much as possible. Sure, not all plastics are going to be recyclable in all cites, all the time, but it shouldn’t hurt us to at least label everything. Telling the truth shouldn’t be a bad thing.

I’ve drafted a letter to the SPI, but I haven’t found an email address for them yet. I’ll keep on searching and send them the letter when I find one, but for now I’m going to post it here on my blog. Any help in finding contact information for them would be appreciated!

–Q

———————

Hi,

I’ve been trying to recycle all of my plastic goods and I’m running into some little hurdles. I hope that you and the SPI can help me overcome these hurdles!

I’m happy to report that in my area we have a recycler that will take plastics #1-7. Most places only take #1 and #2 plastics, and usually only bottles and jugs. Being able to recycle all kinds of things — from shampoo bottles and caps to strawberry clamshells and plastic bags from electronic parts — would be great (I have previously had to throw such items in the trash). As long as a product is marked with a resin id code #1-7, the local recycler will take it.

Of course, there are some items that aren’t marked with a resin id code. Some milk jug and juice bottle lids have a code on the underside, but most do not. Several foam plates and clamshells and lots of plastic packaging and plastic lids do not have codes on them. Small containers, even bottles, are often bare of any marking.

I’ve tried contacting the manufacturers of the packaging products, asking them to label all of their plastic components so I can recycle them, and I’ve gotten roughly the same answers from all of them.

I was encouraged to hear that the companies I contacted were interested in recycling all of their products. I had expected a lukewarm reception with vague promises, but instead I got very helpful and on-topic responses. I was obviously concerned to hear that companies were interested in recycling but were hesitant to increase their labeling efforts.

To address each of the answers I received from the companies in turn:

1) The SPI (and several state laws) indicate that the resin id codes should be placed on food containers that hold from 8oz – 5 gallons.

I think it’s great to start with food containers from 8oz – 5gallons, but why stop there? I think it would be appropriate for the SPI to indicate that manufacturers should be encouraged to put resin id codes on all plastic products, as long as the codes are correctly used.

2) We’d like to label all of our products, but the SPI says that the “code should appear on the bottom of the container”.

It looks like the SPI website suggests that the code appear as close to the bottom of the container as possible. If you could further clarify the fact that the bottom is preferable, but not required, that might be enough to encourage wary manufacturers that it’s okay for them to label things elsewhere.

3) The SPI further tells us to “[m]ake the code inconspicuous at the point of purchase so it does not influence the consumer’s buying decision”.

I understand that the SPI codes may not be the prettiest thing ever, but I’m a little confused about this suggestion. Prior to being able to recycle plastics #1-7 I would routinely make a decision to purchase something in a #1 or #2 container or in paperboard boxes as those were the only things I could recycle. Informing consumers about the resin content of the packaging they purchase gives them the power to speak with their wallet and buy products in packaging that they can recycle in their area.

Greater education is needed to explain that presence of an SPI resin code does not imply that a given product is recyclable in all areas, no doubt, but a part of the problem here may be the fact that the resin codes include the universal recycling symbol in their design. Recycling isn’t that hard, but it will take some effort to educate people to use the system properly.

4) Placing a code on a product when it is not legally required to be there creates legal problems, and may mislead the consumer into thinking that a product can be recycled when it cannot be recycled in their area.

This sounds like one of the biggest hurdles: Companies are concerned about legal liability if they increase labeling.

Is this really a valid concern? I don’t know the case law, but maybe the SPI could step in here and issue some further guidelines for marking plastic items to assuage these corporate fears. Something along the lines of “if done in good faith, and in cooperation with the SPI, marking of plastic items with appropriate resin id codes should be wholeheartedly supported and will not be viewed as misleading to the consumer.”

When I was on your website I saw the short video about resin id codes and was happy to hear that the SPI is currently working to increase the number of resin id codes. I’m very hopeful that as new codes are created and start showing up on products, I can work with our local recycler to make it possible for us to recycle all types of plastics.

In the end, I think everyone’s goal is to increase recycling of plastics and encourage better separation of plastics to garner greater yields of higher-purity recycled resins. By supporting the efforts of the plastics manufacturers, plastics users, and consumers, SPI can step up and take its place as a leader in the next generation of plastic recycling.

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