Recycling is and has been a major topic of discussion in recent years, particularly plastics recycling. To further encourage and enable plastic recycling, the Plastic Industry Trade Association created the Resin Identification Codes in 1988 (par. 1, “spi”). The Resin ID codes are the numbers inside of the triangles on various plastic items, seeming signifying that an item can be recycled; however, there is much more to these codes than just that.
They do not, in fact, mean that an item can be recycled, but specifically denote which kind of plastic an object is (there are ix codes for specific plastics, with code number seven being something of a “catch-all” for the remaining plastics and composites), and only four of these seven codes truly denotes a plastic that is be recycled at all – and it is relatively rare for an area to recycle all four kinds.
Despite the efforts to simplify the process of recycling, we still waste massive amounts of recyclable material – a huge improvement over the 1980’s, but by and large a tiny fraction of what we use overall. These statistics beg the question “what impact have the Resin ID codes truly had on recycling? ” In an effort to discern if there has in fact een a significant impact on our recycling rates, I set out to research the overall changes in recycling since these changes were implemented.
I began with an article from Plastics Technology magazine over the Plastics Recycling Conference, which discussed changes to single-stream recycling (the practice of placing all of one’s recyclables in one location to be collected and recycled) in recent years and other alterations to the recycling stream – namely the addition of e-plastics, plastics from electronic components. In Lilli Sherman’s article for Plastics Technology magazine entitled “Recycling Conference Focuses on Changing Recycle Streams” (2015), she reports that the recycling industry is working to capture new sources of recyclable plastics.
I enjoyed the article, and it helped immerse me in the world of recycling and plastics, which I was still quite new to – I used it primarily to “wet my feet,” as it were, intending to tighten my focus later, shifting as necessary. Sherman herself cites several different presentations given by influencers in the industry in order to support her overall topic – focusing on one particular study about e-plastics, or plastics used in electronic devices. She emains objective through the article, using jargon frequently without explanation – which I found slightly frustrating, but not overly difficult to understand.
From this article, which I found interesting, but not entirely true to my proposed topic, I decided to look at one central to it – one covering a major change in recycling. I did not expect the change to be as recent as it ended up being. In the article “Collect, Innovate, Recycle” (2014), David Bodamar states that after “Sharon Kneiss took over as the head of the [National Waste & Recycling Association],” it strengthened ot just the association but the whole industry, which is continuing to evolve (43). The Q&A method with which he supports his overall point made it interesting to read.
I enjoyed that the format broke the article into pieces, which made it easier to read. This was another article that threw me into the industry, assuming knowledge I did not have – namely, what the National Waste & Recycling Association had done for the industry in America, and for how long. The article instead focused on what changes were happening internally and a few policies that were being implemented. These policies became ignificant again later in my research, but for now I moved on to something I thought would interest me more – something with less sweeping effects across all of recycling.
Instead, I decided to read about recycling of specific kinds of plastic materials – something which I had been curious about, and part of the implicit intent of my question. In the article “Laminates: Recycling the Unrecyclable” (2012), Carlos Ludlow, Catherine White, and Howard Chase argue that “despite being perceived as unrecyclable,” “closing the loop and providing an economically and environmentally viable recycling route for laminates] will undoubtedly offer a major boost to the green credentials of laminate packaging” (52).
They first define laminates – plastics bonded with things like aluminum foil, then explain their use primarily as packaging, then explain the reality behind them – that they make recycling difficult, despite their perceived environmental friendliness, and put forward several potential recycling options for them. As an enthusiastic backpacker and camper, I found the article interesting on a personal level as well as relevant to my research overall – namely, as a part of the industry that was still working to improve itself.
Even recently, recyclers struggled with this material. I decided to keep tabs on this as a potential point for an end product, and as another point of growing change within the industry. From there, I moved to a wider view again – and I was extremely excited about this next set of articles I had found. “Resin ID Codes Could Get Upgraded” (2014) was easily the most topical piece I had found yet – something that discussed the past of recycling and suggested a specific direction for change and growth.
In his article, Jim Johnson suggests that the coming update to the resin ID codes will “help reclaimers better identify nd sort the plastics for recycling” (par. 6). He continues to explain just why these changes will be helpful to the industry, in detail. Since these changes were still in the works, they were primarily suggestions for increasing efficiency (notably specifying the kind of plastic an object is in addition to the numerical code). The article was at once refreshing and irritating; I had hoped for one cataloguing the changes I wished to track, building up to why these changes were necessary.
I instead only got the latter – relevant, but only a part of the whole picture I desired. I oved on to a “sister” article, hoping to find the information I craved but had thus far been starved of. In “Modernizing the Resin Identification Code” (2016), Doug Clauson covers the upcoming revision to the resin identification code system as well, stating that it will “create a more robust coding system that is relevant and useful,” making it easier to recycle plastics (paragraph 10).
He builds his argument by outlining the history of resin codes and their immediate effects, comparing the past’s flow of plastics to today’s, and then explains why they are working to update the resin codes. Finding this article was vastly encouraging – while it did not give me the periphery information I desired, it did give me the core of my answer with much more detail than I had found previously. It also brought up “films” – thin plastics that were difficult to recycle along with the main stream of materials.
Intrigued, I decided to look more closely at those, my hunger for the history of recycling being assuaged for now. In the article “The Ubiquitous Plastic Bag – And What To Do” (2016), Megan McLaughlin and John Halstead posit that there are a number of ways to curb the use of plastic bags, each ith their own positives and negatives – and that implementation of these policies and their success depends on the area implemented (40). They use 13 case studies as examples. I found the reasoning behind each of the 13 cities’ decisions to limit plastic bag use fascinating – even if l disagreed with the ideology somewhat.
Primarily, the cities enacted their various policies to discourage litter (despite the fact that, as a later article points out, that the actual amount of litter that plastic bags composed was tiny). In order to gain an opposing yet equally informed opinion, I read “Plastic Bags Are Good For You” (2015), in which Katherine Mangu-Ward argues for the usefulness of disposable plastic bags and against their banning, stating that they are “likely our best bet for carrying all our junk in a responsible manner” (paragraph 44).
Frankly, this was the most interesting piece I have read – it was well-written and well sourced, and provided a good counterpoint to the previous article. Both of them together formed another facet to plastic recycling I had not considered – that of plastic bags and films (and tangentially sanitization of said plastics). Prior to this I had not actually thought to recycle plastic bags. I decided at this oint that, instead of looking into the past, I would instead look into the future – into how to get consumers to recycle more.
Essentially my next article was a direct answer to this question. In “How Can the USA Dramatically Increase Recycling Rates? ” (2015), the American Chemistry Council asserts that the most effective way to raise the amount of material Americans recycle is to change behavior (pg. 48). To me, the most enjoyable aspect of the article was that I had thought of the answer they came to before they had gotten to it. They built up the various ways that they had attempted to increase them, and it all boiled own to ways of changing behavior – with the main juxtaposition being a “carrot” vs. “stick” mentality (with the stick being the predominant view of how to change behavior).
I returned to industry specific information with “Equipment Innovations Give a Big Boost to Plastics Recycling” (2016). Mike Verespej explains that the innovations, updates, and upgrades going in in recycling plants are dramatically increasing their capabilities and their quality (pg. S9). First, he explains the challenges recycling plans face with their equipment and then the technologies that have reduced or even eliminated these challenges.
With this article, I began to consider a much more engineering-centric approach to my final product – fitting, considering that that had been the focus of a large section of my research. This was a last-ditch effort to find information on how recycling had changed – what ended up being the “death- throes” of my original question. From here, I moved to a portion of the question I had considered but not seen much research on – the actual collection and transportation of materials. In the article “Single Minded” (2009), Michael Fickes argues that single stream recycling is gaining in popularity and may soon “become he rule” (40).
This was another instance of an article using several case studies to tie in to their conclusion. I do not remember ever living without single stream recycling – an idea I find both intriguing but somehow counter-intuitive. I understand that innovations allow for better collection and sorting, but would not a separation beforehand make this largely unnecessary? The answer eludes me till. In conclusion, the recycling industry itself has gone through many changes and advancements since 1988, and has made many leaps forward technologically and in sheer tonnage of material.
Lamination is a perfect example, an instance of reducing overall usage of materials due to innovations and ideas. However, these innovations are not without their flaws – laminates are difficult to recycle and have less “participation as it requires more input from the consumer” (51). With my research, I set out to find the impact that resin ID codes had on recycling; instead, I found the current strengths and shortcomings that the industry has to work with, and how interconnected these causes are.
I have not yet answered my question – while there are many statistics and sources stating how much is and has been recycled, statistics in the other areas I intended to research (say, the routes he garbage trucks themselves take and potential changes to them) have been nigh-nonexistent. Due to this dearth of information, going forward I will center my focus on the “home front” – the consumers and collection of recyclables, instead of the processes behind how the materials themselves are broken down.