Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

For Sorters’ Eyes Only: A Brief History of the RIC

Plastics recycling 25 years ago boiled down to two types of products: PET soda bottles and high-density (HDPE) milk jugs. But if the public, and the plastics industry, wanted to expand the plastics recycling effort, the first thing they needed was a good way to automatically identify the different plastic types.

“It was hoped that if a system was developed where the basic resin was marked on the container itself or on the articles that recyclers or sorters on the recycling line could actually identify those numbers and separate them into a variety of different bins,” said Thomas Pecorini, technology fellow at Eastman Chemical and chairman of ASTM Section D20.95.01 during a recent webinar hosted by the SPI Recycling Policy Subcommittee.

This desire gave birth to the modern resin identification code (RIC) system, created by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association in 1988 to help make it easier for sorters and recyclers to separate different types of materials into one of six (eventually seven) different, broadly-defined resin groups. The goal then was the same as it is now; to reduce waste and ensure that the recyclable plastics entering the municipal waste stream could be collected and given a second life. The question has become, is the RIC still a vehicle for achieving that goal?

Resin ID Code Triangles

The RIC.

What began as a tool to help sorters and recyclers, however, eventually grew to become one of the hardest aspects of plastics recycling for consumers to understand. A poll conducted by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and Earth911 between May and July found that consumers are easily confused when it comes to recycling plastics.

“With more and more plastic being produced, it’s essential that plastic products that have reached end of life enter the recycling stream,” said Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “As long as confusion reigns, consumers are apt to throw plastics away that should be recycled. This Earth911/ISRI Opinion Poll demonstrates a strong need for additional education, particularly by municipalities, on what can be recycled and how to do it.” Among the poll’s findings was the fact that 65 percent of respondents answered that they don’t understand what is and what is not permissible when recycling plastics. Additionally, 17 percent of those consumers were most confused by the meaning of the recycling numbers, or resin identification codes (RICs).

The irony in the poll’s findings is that the RIC, created to facilitate recycling, might be making consumers less likely to recycle, simply by confusing them, but it’s important to remember that the RIC was never designed for consumers in the first place. “The RICs were never really intended to suggest that all items with a resin ID code are collected for recycling,” Pecorini said. “Moreover they were never actually meant to be used by the general public and the original system was meant to be an optional system.”

But the deceptive simplicity of the original RIC made it an obvious, although ultimately misleading education tool for municipalities hoping to outsource their sorting procedures to consumers themselves. “Municipal recycling programs tried to bring their sortation-at-home programs and they began informing the consumers that these RICs exist and used it as a public education tool to say if you had six bins in your garage you could self-sort all the different materials,” Pecorini said. “But unfortunately that also fell out of favor because the consumers didn’t want to spend that much time on recycling.”

The RIC’s legacy to the general public is the erroneous suggestion that the presence of a RIC number, surrounded by a chasing arrow, means that the item is automatically recyclable. “This has kind of created a series of problems,” Pecorini said.

As such, in 2008 SPI began working with ASTM to take control over the RIC and convert it to a globally-accepted standard that conveys more information about the material, but the process is a balancing act. Making changes to the labeling system too suddenly could negatively affect moldmakers, and adding too much information to further particularize one of the existing RICs could lead to situations like China’s where an explosion of different categories has given them a system with 140 numbers, as opposed to the RIC’s meager seven.

However, most can agree that replacing the RIC with a more productive 21st century counterpart will require more specifics to make collected articles easier to sort into recyclable groups, and that the RIC should not be used as a public education tool. But many other issues remain under consideration, and ASTM’s work will continue as they strive to set a standard that considers the needs of moldmakers, equipment manufacturers and processors as well as those of consumers. “What we see in recycling right now is transitions from a lot of consumer education and relying on the consumers to sort the material, to more automated sorting,” Pecorini said. “I personally would hope that someday we get to the point where we can tell consumers to just put all your plastics in a bin, and that may very well happen down the pike…but right now that isn’t in place.” That is certainly a vision that is shared by SPI.

Monday, August 18th, 2014

North American Plastics Alliance Celebrates Three Years—and Welcomes ANIPAC

By William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association; Carol Hochu, President and CEO, The Canadian Plastics Industry Association; and Steve Russell, Vice President, Plastics Division, The American Chemistry Council

Three years ago, the three leading plastics industry associations in the U.S. and Canada formally joined forces to create the North American Plastics Alliance (NAPA). Although we already were cooperating on many issues, we agreed that by memorializing a commitment to work together we could create efficiencies and be more effective as representatives of this large and diverse industry.

William R. Carteaux

William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI

So what exactly has NAPA undertaken over these three years? Quite a bit.

Quick background… We set out in 2011 to coordinate our individual efforts on specific initiatives and programs in four areas:

  • Outreach – to promote better understanding of plastics’ benefits;
  • Advocacy – to encourage public policy that supports the growth of the plastics industry;
  • Energy recovery and recycling – to facilitate increased recycling and recovery of plastics’ stored energy content; and
  • Pellet containment – to extend wide-scale adoption of Operations Clean Sweep® throughout North America and beyond.

While observing our anniversary in July, we proudly added another member: ANIPAC, the leading  plastics association in Mexico. It was a gratifying  way to celebrate our Alliance, making it a truly North American entity. NAPA now encompasses the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association and Asociación Nacional de Industrias del Plástico, A.C. (ANIPAC).

At the start, we believed that leveraging our individual programs through enhanced cooperation among Alliance members would provide increased value to our associations and our member companies. And we were correct.

For example, on the outreach front, although each of our U.S. and Canadian associations has communications programs, we now routinely promote each other’s content through social media, greatly expanding the reach of our individual efforts.

carol hochu 2

Carol Hochu, President and CEO, CPIA

On the advocacy front, CPIA representatives joined with ACC and SPI in Washington, DC, for the plastics industry “Fly-in” in July, demonstrating the cross-border nature of the North American industry. Representatives from seven plastics associations, along with 111 member company participants, went to Capitol Hill to meet and discuss key issues with elected officials. In total, we met with 122 members of Congress, enhancing our industry’s profile in the Capitol and underscoring our contributions to jobs and sustainability.

The three U.S. and Canadian associations also are actively involved in energy recovery projects. In the City of Edmonton, Alberta, we’re working together to determine if adding more non-recycled plastics to a system that converts waste to gas improves efficiencies and results in better synthetic fuel products. (So far the answer appears to be yes.) The system is a full-scale “gasification” facility that is part of Edmonton’s efforts to divert 90 percent of its waste from landfills through recycling, composting, and waste-to-fuels technologies. We also are working together on plastics-to-oil projects to jumpstart technologies that convert the energy in non-recycled plastics into fuels.

Plastics recycling in the U.S. and Canada continues to show year-over-year growth, supported by myriad technical and communications programs to improve collection and scrap value sponsored by our associations. This fall, SPI will coordinate a meeting of North American plastics recycling association leaders to share best practices on plastics recycling and determine how to work more closely together in the future.

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Steve Russell, Vice President, Plastics Department, ACC

Efforts to improve and expand programs that help prevent resin pellets from entering waterways and the marine environment were particularly successful. In 2011 only the U.S. associations and their member companies were implementing Operation Clean Sweep. SPI created the Operation Clean Sweep initiative in 1992 to focus on proper containment of plastic pellets by resin producers, transporters, bulk terminal operators, and plastics processors.

Today, plastics associations in 12 additional countries, including Canada and Mexico, have launched Operation Clean Sweep. U.S. and Canadian associations have pledged to increase member company participation in Operation Clean Sweep this year by 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively. In addition, Plastics Europe is transitioning its member country associations  to the initiative. These efforts are part of the global plastics industry’s public commitment to tackle a global problem: plastic litter in the marine environment.

So what’s next?  There’s more to do in each of these areas, and through the alliance, we’re discovering new ways to be more efficient and more effective.  Our industry is large, diverse and growing every day.  And it’s clear that our needs are best served when we all work together.

The North American plastics industry is re-surging following a severe recession, with new opportunities brought on by cost-advantaged shale gas. NAPA pledges to help maximize that resurgence through cross-border cooperation and leveraged resources to enhance opportunities for the plastics industry and its products – in the U.S., Canada, and now Mexico.

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Turning the Tide on the Plastics Conversation

by Kim Holmes, SPI, Director, Recycling and Diversion

Many of the stories featured in the 2014springmagazine-coverspring 2014 issue of The SPI Magazine address the topic of plastics in the marine environment, which is undoubtedly an important issue for the industry. Marine debris stories are regularly in the news and are often the focus of recent scientific research. It is an issue that the industry must respond to swiftly and in a meaningful way.

Like marine debris issues, many of the conversations the plastics industry has with regulators and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are in response to a particular problem or challenge that has arisen. The industry will usually enter the conversation from a position of necessity, which often results in being put into a defensive position—not an easy place to be. Given the opportunity, most would like to be able to reverse the dynamic of these conversations, which would allow them the opportunity and ability to get out a more positive message. There are certainly opportunities for the plastics industry to begin the conversation. The question becomes “what would the direction of this conversation look like?”

Changing the dynamic of these conversations means the plastics industry has to make the first move, giving the public information out about the benefits of plastics, not just defending ourselves from the potential problems. Plastics present many advantages in our lives and in the environment. In fact, the more plastics are measured against other materials, the clearer their sustainability advantages become.

Light weight, less energy intensive manufacturing and production processes, minimal effluents in production, durability and expanded product life span and potential for recovery and recyclability are all areas in which plastics measure up favorably. In addition to these inherent advantages, the plastics industry is also adopting initiatives which aim to further reduce its environmental impact, protect workers and enhance the communities in which it does business. Based on what we see from our members, the industry has already expressed a true commitment to embracing the three core values of sustainability: people, planet and profit—commonly known as triple-bottom line.

As sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in the decision-making process of consumers and organizations throughout the supply chain, the plastics industry is finding itself in a position to shape a new conversation. Some large companies such as brand owners are starting to leverage the information in their corporate sustainability reports (CSRs) to demonstrate leadership, which in turn improves brand perception and strengthens brand loyalty.

As we enter the arena of environmental reporting, it is important to remember the distinction between promoting “green” efforts and simply “green washing.” Talking about being green becomes green washing when the environmental benefits are overstated or information that could change the overall environmental benefit of your product is intentionally omitted. This pitfall is one that many companies have been accused of over the years. The damage that can be done when a company is suspected of green washing can far outweigh the incremental positive gains from any beneficial claims. While everyone wants to showcase the benefits of a product, the information must also be accurate. This means that data collection has to be done in a methodical and transparent way, while using standard terms and definitions that are generally accepted by industry.

Last year, SPI conducted the first-ever sustainability benchmark survey of its members. In this first iteration, the survey focused mainly on environmental aspects of sustainability and served as a cursory view of our members’ thoughts about integrating sustainability practices into their business. This year, we have assembled a cross-council and cross-committee workgroup to develop a new sustainability benchmarking tool to measure all aspects of sustainability. The criteria of the tool are also more closely aligned with the corporate sustainable reporting framework offered by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The tool will yield information on many of the same core areas that other large companies and industries use for measuring sustainability.

With the findings of the survey, SPI will be able to evaluate opportunities to further help our members integrate sustainable goals and practices into operations. Of equal importance, the tool will equip the industry with necessary data to highlight many of the positive activities happening in the plastics industry, allowing us to begin our own conversations about the benefits of the material and the industry. Participating companies can also use these findings to identify opportunity areas and set new goals around environmental and social stewardship. And for the many small- and medium-sized companies that may not have implemented sustainability benchmarking, participation in this survey will help organize the information that customers seek from suppliers.

While many large companies have already found value in publicly reporting their sustainability efforts, the overall perception of plastics as a material will benefit greatly if we as an industry can communicate our collective efforts. The participation of SPI members from across the entire supply chain is critical for this to be accomplished. Without it, the information being publicly reported will lack both integrity and accuracy.

Unfortunately, there is a reality where the negative conversations about plastics and the plastics industry will never fully die because they are rooted in emotion rather than science. However, we can bring a balance to the conversations with data-driven information about the benefits of our products and industry. This survey will be deployed in the first quarter of 2015 and we ask all members of the plastics supply chain to participate. Can we begin to turn the tide on the plastics conversation in 2014? Through our sustainability benchmarking efforts, the answer is a resounding yes. Together we can construct a message and take ownership of that conversation, but only with the help of everyone in the industry.

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

One Pellet at a Time – OCS Makes a Difference Around the Globe

By Patty Long, SPI Vice President of Industry Affairs

By taking the Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) pledge, your company is contributing to preserving water quality and wildlife; making your workplace safer for employees; and keeping valuable economic resources where they belong. OCS’ mission is to prevent pellet loss during the use and transportation of materials.OCS logo

SPI and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) continue to encourage other companies to participate because they believe OCS guidelines should serve as best practices for every plastics company in the world. SPI and ACC offered plastics associations around the globe a royalty-free license to provide OCS tools to their members. In the past year, Denmark, Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil have signed on to OCS bringing the total number of international plastics organizations using these tools to 12. In addition, SPI and ACC enacted a new supporter-member category for other plastics associations and brand owners to help in promoting OCS to their members, suppliers and customers. This expansion helps increase awareness of the pellet loss problem and helps brand the best practice.

SPI ‘s spring board meeting raised attention to the issue during a three-hour marine debris plenary session and voluntary beach cleanup. As part of the plenary, SPI highlighted research by the well-respected SEA Research Foundation that works closely with the Ocean Conservancy. SEA research recorded an 80 percent decrease in the concentration of pellets (measured from 1986 to 2010). Those dates coincide with SPI’s first efforts to raise awareness about this important issue. This reduction in the concentration of pellets could not have been achieved without the commitment of companies.

As SPI and ACC continue to promote the program and seek endorsements from other nongovernmental organizations and third parties, companies are encouraged to engage in the following steps.

  • Publicize your commitment to sustainable practices by:
    • Posting the OCS supporter logo on your website
    • Framing  and displaying your OCS member certificate in your lobby
    • Hanging your OCS flag where others can see it
    • Referencing OCS and your commitment to zero pellet loss in an upcoming company newsletter

If you do not have and would like these recognition materials, please email us at ocs@plasticsindustry.org.

  • Let us know how the tools are working for you and your employees. Would refresher webinars be helpful for plant managers?  If you’ve had success stories, would you be willing to share them with us?
  • Make sure that your customers and suppliers know about your membership in OCS. They will appreciate your commitment to sustainable practices.
  • If you belong to other plastics-related associations, encourage them to become a supporter member of OCS to help spread the word further.

Together, we are making a real difference! Taking the OCS pledge is the first step in preserving our rich marine environment.

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Plastic Bottles Shed Light on Needy Families

This article originally appeared on the Plastics Makes it Possible Facebook Page

In the impoverished neighborhoods in and around Manila, Philippines, millions of people live in darkness in their homes—even in the daytime. Electricity is often too expensive, and windows are a building expense that many cannot afford.

To change this, a local social entrepreneur has created a program calledPMIP Photo 73114
A Liter of Light that illuminates the homes of underprivileged families by creating solar-powered light bulbs from a resource some may find surprising: used plastic soft drink bottles.

Volunteers for A Liter of Light begin by gathering discarded, clear plastic bottles. The volunteers then fill each bottle with water and a few drops of chlorine bleach (to retard algae growth). They then fit the bottle snugly into a custom-cut hole in the roof of a home, with the bottom of the bottle extending down into the room below. This allows the clear plastic bottle and water to refract the sun’s rays and scatter light into the house. A silicone plastic sealant applied to the roof and bottle prevents water leaks during rainy tropical weather.

On a sunny day, this simple device can produce approximately 50 watts of light in an otherwise dark room.

Because plastics are lightweight and durable, the bottle lights are easy to install and are expected to last more than five years. And the materials to produce the lights cost very little—or nothing, in the case of discarded bottles gathered by volunteers—which makes it possible for A Liter of Light to help many, many people. The program envisions installing plastic bottle lights in one million homes by the end of 2012.

In an area in which some households earn less than a dollar a day, the plastic bottle lights reduce household expenses, as well as the fire hazards associated with faulty electrical wiring and candles. And when the lights need to be replaced, the plastic bottles can be recycled and new solar lights can be installed for little or no cost.

People often find creative ways to reuse plastic products. These new uses can be practical (such as reusing a plastic grocery bag as a trash can liner), or they can be fun (like making a Halloween costume out of plastic bottles). And sometimes, they can help improve people’s lives by creating a solution to a big problem—in this case, “a sustainable lighting project which aims to bring the eco-friendly bottle bulb to low-income communities nationwide.”