RECYCLING: To Collect Or Not To Collect: Plastics Is The Question

The chasing arrows: A graphic commonly mistaken for a recycling symbol on plastic containers is meaningless.

The plastics industry adopted this symbol in 1988 to be used as a "catchy graphic" around the number that identifies resin type, according to a report by the Plastics Task Force (PTF), Berkeley, Calif. The industry reportedly has claimed that it never intended the chasing arrows to indicate recyclability or to identify recycled content.

Regardless of intent, the fact is that very few plastic containers are practically recyclable, and almost none contain recycled material, the re-port continued. Recently, the City of Berkeley considered adding plastics to its curbside pickup program - the oldest on-going recycling program in the country - but reconsidered, based on PTF's findings.

Organized in February 1995 by the Ecology Center, the operator of Berkeley's recycling program, PTF set out to study the issues and provide data for city officials to determine the feasibility of adding plastics at the curb (see chart).

After more than a year of research, PTF concluded that establishing plastics collection may increase consumption by making plastic appear more ecologically friendly to consumers and retailers. In this way, collecting plastics at the curb could legitimize the production and marketing of packaging made from virgin plastic.

"At a cost of $600 to $1,000 per ton to collect, when we would only be recycling three tenths of a percent of the waste stream, it seems instituting a curbside program [in Berkeley] is largely a feel-good measure," said PTF Member Karen Pickett. "The production of PET is booming, and that's where we need to ask the question: Is this a good idea, and if not, what can we do about it? Our research has revealed many reasons why picking up plastic in a recycling program may not be a good idea."

For example, many of the products made from recycled plastic resin are not themselves recyclable, making the "recycling" only a temporary diversion from the landfill, according to the report. Collecting plastic packaging at curbside fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, the recovered material is converted into new packaging. Most recovered plastics packaging, however, is not made into packaging again but into new secondary products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers or plastic lumber - all unrecyclable products - the re-port continued.

As a result of the information gathered, the PTF identified five strategies that will reduce the environmental impact of plastics and lead to systematic improvements in consumption and disposal practices: source reduction, container reuse, resin stewardship, recycled content mandates, label standardization and public education.

The most direct way to eliminate problems that stem from producing, using and disposing of plastics packaging, according to the PTF, is to reduce the use of the packaging. Retailers and consumers can select products that use little or no packaging, and when necessary, select materials that are recycled into new packaging - such as glass or paper.

Another effective and inexpensive source reduction technique is container reduction, the report said. Since refillable plastic containers can be reused ap-proximately 25 times, container reuse can lead to a substantial reduction in disposable plastic demand.

In addition, plastics manufactures' involvement with plastics disposal is important. For example, container makers can make reprocessing easier by limiting the number of container types and shapes, using only one type of re-sin in each container. Meanwhile, resin manufactures can limit the variety of resins within each resin type, avoid using pigments and formulate re-sins so that they can better withstand post-consumer processing. Both container and resin makers can help develop the reprocessing infrastructure by taking back plastic from consumers, the PTF said.

Requiring that all containers be composed of a percentage of post-consumer material, the report said, reduces the amount of virgin material consumed. Although not as effective as other source reduction techniques, mandating recycled content is one way to implement primary recycling and, as a result, to close part of the materials-flow loop.

Regardless of the program adopted for dealing with plastics, standardized terms and labels are necessary for the sake of clarity and fairness. Significant different standardized labels for "recycled," "recyclable" and "made of plastic type X" must be developed.

Finally, a comprehensive public education campaign will help ensure a successful outcome to PTF's strategies.

Task force members include Ecology Center staff and board members, representatives of Berkeley's recycling programs, members of the academic community and various experts on environmental issues. The group received input from environmental organizations, plastics industry experts, recycling program operators, solid waste management companies and public agencies.

For more information or to order the report, contact: The Plastics Task Force, Ecology Center, 2530 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, Calif. 94702. (510) 548-2220.