SPI introduced the Resin Identification Code (RIC) system in 1988 at the urging of recyclers around the country. A growing number of communities were implementing recycling programs in an effort to decrease the volume of waste subject to rising tipping fees at landfills. In some cases, these programs were driven by state-level recycling mandates.
The code was developed to meet recyclers' needs while providing manufacturers a consistent, uniform system that could apply nationwide. Because municipal recycling programs traditionally have targeted packaging - primarily containers - the coding system offered a means of identifying the resin content of bottles and containers commonly found in the residential waste stream. The RICs are used solely to identify the plastic resin used in a manufactured article.
In 2008, SPI began work with ASTM International, a globally recognized leader in the development and delivery of international voluntary consensus standards, to develop a new standard that would expand the current RIC system. In 2010 ASTM International issued ASTM D7611 - Standard Practice for Coding Plastic Manufactured Articles for Resin Identification. In 2013 ASTM International announced revisions to ASTM D7611 including a change to the graphic marking symbol used to identify resin type. The RIC system has used a “chasing arrows” symbol surrounding a numeral from 1 to 7 that defines the resin used in the product’s packaging. Under D7611, this marking symbol is now specified as a solid equilateral triangle around the number. By replacing the chasing arrows graphic – commonly associated with recycling – with an equilateral triangle, ASTM D7611 stressed the focus to the system’s core mission: resin identification and quality control prior to recycling. Other modifications to the RIC are currently being discussed and developed by ASTM's D20.95 subcommittee on recycled plastics.
Improper use of the RIC can have serious ramifications for individual manufacturers and could jeopardize the integrity of the coding system. Therefore, all users of the code are encouraged to adhere diligently to the following guidelines:
The majority of plastic packaging is made with one of six resins: polyethylene terephthalate (PETE); high density polyethylene (HDPE); polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl); low density polyethylene (LDPE); polypropylene (PP); or polystyrene (PS). The RIC assigns each of these resins a number from 1 to 6.
The coding system also includes a seventh code, identified as "other." Use of this code indicates that the product in question is made with a resin other than the six listed above. The "other" code was developed to address legislative demands in some states that all consumer packages fitting certain size and functional parameters feature a RIC.
As of June 2013, 39 states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin have adopted legislation regarding the use of the RICs on bottles of 16 ounces or more and rigid containers of 8 ounces or more consistent with the code. (Wisconsin requires use of the code on bottles of 8 ounces or more.)
In addition, alleged abuses of RICs have led consumer and environmental groups to ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and State Attorneys General, among others, to take legal or regulatory action. Manufacturers considering resin coding should be cognizant of the concerns raised by these organizations. Similarly, manufacturers already using a coding system would be well advised to review their current practices.
The Value of Resin Identification Codes
Plastic is not any one material. Rather, it is a family of related materials with varying properties that can be engineered to meet the requirements of a broad range of applications. The success of a product often is dependent on matching the right plastic - with the right properties - to the right application.
The same is true when the material in question is a recycled plastic. As a result, there is a premium placed on the purity of post-use plastics. The more uniform the post-use plastics going in, the more predictable the properties of the recycled plastic coming out. Coding enables individuals to perform quality control (i.e., sorting) before recycling, ensuring that the recycled plastic is as homogenous as possible to meet the needs of the end markets.
Another potential benefit of coding is that it may facilitate the recovery of plastics not currently collected for recycling. If there is a readily identifiable supply of a given material in the waste stream, it may drive recycling entrepreneurs to explore means of recovering that material in a cost-effective manner.
Proper Usage of Resin Identification Codes
From the outset, explicit guidelines have been offered as to the proper sizing and positioning of the RIC on containers, including the following:
Observance of these guidelines is essential to the integrity of the RIC's stated mission: to facilitate the recovery of post-use plastics. The code was not intended to be - nor was it ever promoted as - a guarantee to consumers that a given item bearing the code will be accepted for recycling in their community. Much of the recent legal and regulatory activity surrounding use of the code has focused on uses that have been construed as making such a guarantee. This scrutiny is part of a larger effort by the FTC and State Attorney Generals to crack down on the use of "false and misleading environmental claims" in product marketing.