Recycling: What are the rules for plastics?

In the competitive consumer goods marketplace, claiming an item is recyclable is becoming an increasingly important marketing tool.   I was asked recently what the criteria is to be able to use a recycling logo on a product or its packaging.  

Paper products are an easy category for recycling because all types of paper and cardboard are accepted by most recyclers.  This is the “Chasing arrows” symbol typically used on paper products.

With plastics, recyclability is represented with a narrow ‘chasing arrows’ triangle symbol surrounding a number between 1 and 7 that defines the exact resin used.  This is called a ‘Resin Identification Code’. Plastics 1 through 6 are for specific resin substrates; number 7 is the “Other” plastic category.

With plastics, it’s important to name the resin type because many recyclers are limited in their capability of recycling certain substrates. And mixed substrates (i.e.: polymer and nylon combined) are usually a problem for any recycling.

The recycling symbol is in the public domain; it is not a trademark. Because they handle “truth in advertising/selling” issues, the Federal Trade Commission governs the recycling logo in the United States. Sellers who make bogus environmental claims can get fined for deceptive advertising practices. There’s also some self-policing that goes on: Companies have reported their competitors, claiming use of phony recycling symbols are an unfair business practice

So how do you know what substrate YOUR plastic item is made of?  There are over 300 Green certifications available worldwide, but in North America, only EcoLogo and Green Seal appear to have earned the highest ranking from the International Standards Organization, a global watchdog that upholds standards for products and services. For a fee, they can test your product and issue you a certificate that allows you to use their seal.  

I can think of a few other options:

  1. Ask your supplier what substrate they use. But also ask them to show a test report or raw material purchase order that backs up their claim.
  2. Submit a sample of the plastic to a 3rd party lab for analysis. Cascadia can help you with this process.

Once you know the resin substrate, you can check on the Resin Identification codes to determine if one of the recycling symbols can be used.

These easy to implement measures can ensure your product is labeled properly and remains within compliance guidelines. It will also provide a more intuitive instruction for the consumer to facilitate proper handling of the product.

About the Author
I know how Amazon investigates safety and compliance concerns because I wrote some of their internal investigation procedures. I spent four years at Amazon building out compliance requirements and training their associates. Before that, I spent twenty years helping Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Costco, Eddie Bauer and other large retailers deal with quality, safety and compliance issues on a wide range of products, from hardlines to softlines and food to supplements.

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