Columnist Susan Waite: Plastic recycling and the arrows that dupe

  • Plastic bottles packed for recycling. Public Domain Image

  • Resin ID symbol for polyethylene terephthalate, a type of plastic. Public domain image

For the Gazette
Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Most people assume that any plastic item marked with the famous recycling arrows will have a second life as another object if placed in a recycling bin. That is simply not true. A number surrounded by chasing arrows does not mean that you should put it in a recycling bin. Similarly, if a plastic item lacks a number surrounded by arrows, it does not mean that it can’t be recycled.

If you are surprised by this statement, you are not alone. Millions of other Americans will also be flummoxed, because the misunderstanding has gone on for decades. I’m hoping the following information will clear things up.

The numbers you find surrounded by chasing arrows identifies the type of plastic resin used to produce the item. The coding system was created as a plastics industry resin identification method thirty years ago. At that time, the Society for Plastics Council, Inc., choose to surround the resin ID number with the chasing arrows. No one objected, and confusion ensued.

While not designed as a consumer tool, some early recycling educators thought the number system might be useful to help the public figure out which items to recycle. A steady flow of plastic packaging innovations (including mixed and plant-based resins) and constantly changing manufacturer needs proved them wrong. Most municipalities now employ a simpler approach based on the type of container, instead of the type of plastic.

In 2013, the organization that now regulates resin ID system use, revised the system and replaced the arrows with a closed triangle. Over time this will reduce confusion, but updating molds in hundreds of factories around the world is a slow and painstaking process.

To complicate things further, some state recycling laws specifically reference the original arrow-encircled symbol. Until updated, those laws will overrule all new recommended cosmetic changes.

Technically, any plastic can be recycled, but as Mimi Kaplan pointed out in last month’s column, only those varieties desired by manufacturers are collected for recycling. Would you collect infant clothing for your 9-year-old child? Recycling works the same way: only those items made out of resins useful to recycling manufacturers are collected.

Putting anything else into the bin adds costs and other problems for the industry. Until recycling technology and/or demand for all types of plastic resin increases, the best way we can support U.S. recycling is to be thoughtful about the containers we put into our bin.

The easiest strategy is to focus on plastic bottles, tubs, jars, jugs, and clear clamshells that held food or personal products and are less than 2½ gallons in size. Our local recycling facility’s website (springfieldmrf.org) provides useful household recycling information, including colorful, graphical posters you can download, to help answer sorting questions. It is worth a visit!

Other helpful information will appear in the Gazette’s annual Reduce Reuse Recycle Guide, which will be inserted in your April 17 Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Susan Waite is the waste reduction coordinator for the City of Northampton.