Bag-It Followup: Those Pesky Recycling Codes Explained

During this month’s screening of “Bag It”, you might recall its main character, Jeb Berrier, remarking that the recycling codes marking different plastic products, do NOT indicate that they are made of recycled products or of materials for which there is a process in place for recycling them. You may wonder, as I did, at the origin of these symbols. It turns out they were placed there by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) in the late 80s in order to help recyclers identify the resin used to make a product. Before they can melt it down and turn it into something else, it needs to be sorted. In 2013, the American Society for Testing and Materials revised the standard, replacing the chasing arrows logo with a less confusing equilateral triangle:

Resin ID Code Triangles - Edited

 

SPI advises manufacturers that these codes should be hidden from the consumer, but I suggest you take a look anyway!

The resin identification code can help you understand what went into the product you’re considering buying, how recyclable it is, and what additives may be included.
1. Polyethylene Terephthalate, AKA PETE or Polyester
2. High Density Polyethylene HDPE
3. Polyvinyl Chloride PVC
4. Low Density Polyethylene LDPE
5. Polypropylene
6. Polystyrene
7. Everything else; mixed resins, Polycarbonate, etc.

As you can probably guess these plastics and the various additives they contain have been studied extensively and there is a lot of information available, but we’ll save that for another day. Let’s talk about recyclability. The vast majority of the plastics recycled in the US, based both on total weight and the % recovery, is either polyester (1), HDPE (2), or LDPE (4). Because of the various challenges involved; 3, 5, 6, and 7 have very low recycling rates.

Some items from around my house. Clockwise from upper left: a polyester water bottle, PVC shampoo bottle, HDPE napkin container, polycarbonate bottle, LDPE bag, and polystyrene cd case, all in a polypropylene basket.
Some items from around my house. Clockwise from upper left: a polyester water bottle, PVC shampoo bottle, HDPE napkin container, polycarbonate bottle, LDPE bag, and polystyrene cd case, all in a polypropylene basket.

Here in Cincinnati, ALL 7 of these codes are accepted for curbside pickup. Rumpke does not discriminate amongst the different types of resins but does not accept certain products, plastic grocery bags among them. For a complete list see here.

While all of these different types of plastic can be recycled to some extent, they still have a limited lifespan. One additional life, and then it’s off to the landfill. A 2012 Huffington Post slideshow gives a quick description of how many times some common materials can be recycled. So is there anything that recycles better than plastic? Yes! In fact almost any disposables are more recyclable than plastic.

To sum up, the best products are those that don’t leave you with a useless, potentially dangerous item that you are then tasked with the ethical disposal of. If you can get it in your own reusable bag or container-how liberating! Or maybe in a glass jar or paper bag that can be repurposed OR recycled many times! Sometimes buying disposable plastic is just the only available option, and in those cases it’s good to know that we can look for a recyclable plastic that can have another, hopefully much longer life as a new product.

Sources and further reading:
http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/plastics.htm
http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/waste/downloads/Plastics.pdf
http://www.rumpke.com/
http://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm