The waters of the recycling waste stream are being muddied. And it’s a growing concern. More...


The waters of the recycling waste stream are being muddied. And it’s a growing concern for The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), which jointly issued a release to that effect in mid-March.

APR members represent more than 94% of the post-consumer plastic reclamation capacity in North America. Founded in 1987, NAPCOR is the trade association for the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) industry in the United States and Canada.

The groups’ concern centers on misuse of the Resin Identification Code, created in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) for all rigid plastic packaging. Mandated by varying laws in 39 states, the Code has become the de facto national standard. APR executive director Steve Alexander points to the culprit as mismarked “rogue bottles” that confuse consumers and recyclers.

“Misuse of the Code is an extremely serious issue for plastics reclaimers,” Alexander says. “We see bottles labeled with such terms as ‘Compatible Recycling’ and wonder what that undefined phrase means. We also see bottles that are clearly not made from PET resin being labeled as ‘#1 PETE.’ Many of these rogues have such low melting points that inclusion with PET bottles can shut down recycling operations.”

“The SPI Code has long been used as a tool for recycling program officials to educate consumers as to what plastic packaging is being collected for recycling,” says Dennis Sabourin, executive director of NAPCOR. “The Code has been largely self-policing and, until recent years, this has been successful. Misuse and mislabeling of a package is a significant problem for reclaiming that category of packaging, and ultimately will cause considerable disruption in the markets for recycled plastic materials.”

Alexander tells Food & Beverage Packaging that marketing pressure surrounding sustainability makes the SPI PETE #1 coding highly desirable. He says the misidentification is especially a problem for high-volume automated sortation systems, as opposed to manual operations. Bale loads have been wasted and lines shut down for clean out as a result of rogue bottles.

In another development related to recycling, Alexander gave his view of the plans announced in mid-March by startup company, BioCor LLC, to buy, collect, and process post-consumer polylactic acid (PLA). Notably, BioCor will accept all containers made of PLA, not just bottles.

“While PLA is an eminently recyclable material by itself, it cannot be mixed with other resins,” Alexander says. “Unfortunately, it presents a low-melt problem when it gets mixed in with PET. It’s as different from PET as PVC is. Setting up a separate collection stream for PLA would be a huge, positive step. The advantage if PLA is recovered is that almost all of it can be broken down to its original form and reused again. There’s a tremendous opportunity for manufacturers of PLA and incentive to recover as much of the material as they can.”

Alexander acknowledges that PLA containers can get mixed in with PET. “However, that’s not a mislabeling issue from the SPI identification code,” he points out. “That’s a separate issue. They have incentive to recover and reuse PLA over and over.”

Meantime, what can be done about rogue containers? Alexander states that currently the only legal recourse is to contact the attorneys general in the 39 states that have laws regarding the use of the SPI coding.

Alexander encourages consumer packaged goods companies to check APR’s technical guidelines for recyclable containers. Or they can contact the APR directly with any questions before they launch. “After that, it’s almost too late,” he says.

A sister publication, Packaging Strategies notes in its April 1 issue that the Charlottesville, Va.-based Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC)started a Labeling for Recovery Project last year that addresses the issue of the mobius loop/chasing arrow packaging symbol. According to the group, some of those labels “give the erroneous impression that a package can be recycled everywhere.” The SPC is looking at new label designs for on-package recyclability and a data collection system to measure community access to recycling programs.