Do You Know The Difference?

Universal Recycling SymbolSymbol_Resin_Code_1_PETE.svg

The stamped or embossed Resin Identification Code (RIC)  seen on plastic consumer products was first developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) in 1988 to provide recycling and manufacturing companies with a universal standardized system for coding plastic resins.

The codes were first intended to help waste recovery facilities manually sort the plastic products prior to recycling. Modern single stream recycling facilities now rely on automated systems using spectroscopy to sort the many resin types found in plastic materials.

Today the resin codes are used by municipalities, scrap brokers, recyclers, manufacturers, consumers and others for managing the end-of-life of plastics materials.

The SPI began working with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International) in 2008 to involve technology and industrial experts in improving and maintaining the RIC system to better serve changing societal needs and advancements in plastic technology. In 2010, the ASTM issued the first standard for resin codes, ASTM D7611 (Standard Practice for Coding Plastic Manufactured Articles for Resin Identification).

After issuing the standard, ASTM discovered a problem with the graphics used for the resin code symbol; chasing arrows in a triangle surrounding the RIC number. The arrows closely resembled the universal symbol for recycling which is used to indicate a plastic material or product can be recycled.

But not all resin coded plastics can be recycled. Therefore the association of the resin code symbols with the recycling symbol was causing a lot of confusion with individuals and organizations who were trying to dispose of plastic waste properly.
In 2013 ASTM changed the RIC symbol by replacing the chasing arrows in the triangle with solid lines.

As Bridget Anderson, a member of the ASTM task force for updating the standards commented:

“This is an important first step to help ensure the long-term integrity and viability of the RIC system. Building on this effort, committee members can marshal their collective expertise to continue to create a more robust coding system that is relevant and useful to multiple stakeholders in the recycling system today and into the future.”

Manufacturers could keep their molds with the chasing arrows symbol but as the molds needed replacing manufacturers were requested to replace them with molds using the new graphics. In addition, some states had legislated the use of the chasing arrow graphics by plastic manufacturers which meant state law would have to be changed to incorporate the new graphics.

As a result, the change has happened gradually and the old symbols may still be seen on some plastic products and materials.

Despite the changes made to the resin code symbols, the confusion between resin codes and recyclability persists. To further clarify the distinction, the ASTM added this note in the 2019 issue of the D7611 standard:

“Resin Identification Codes are not ‘recycle codes.’ The Resin Identification Code is, though, an aid to recycling. The use of a Resin Identification Code on a manufactured plastic article does not imply that the article is recycled or that there are systems in place to effectively process the article for reclamation or re-use. The term “recyclable” or other environmental claims shall not be placed in proximity to the Code.”

The RIC symbol still plays an important role in helping consumers and industry  determine which materials and products can be accepted by waste material collectors and recycling businesses and organizations.

The recycling industry however is facing a dilemma. The recycling industry stalled when China began buying plastic waste from the U.S. to re-purpose it in China. Today, China has put an indefinite moratorium on importing plastic waste from the U.S.  Waste handlers are stuck with an excess of plastic waste with not enough facilities to produce raw materials and products made from recycled plastic. Recyclers are also competing with the lower cost of virgin plastic manufactured by the petrochemical industry.

To spur the growth of these recycling facilities and businesses, consumers should continue to add recyclable waste to the waste stream but more importantly consumers need to buy products made from recycled plastics.

The industry can only succeed if companies are able to make a profit from recycled products and raw materials.

So, next time you’re shopping, look for labels that read “Made from Recycled Materials”.

Make your contribution to the circular economy.

From Product to Waste to Product

Click on the link to view  all the up to date ASTM resin codes.