Ditching the Numbers

By Andrea Davis on February 8, 2019

As recyclers, we’ve been trained to look for that number inside the arrows chasing each other around on the bottom of our plastic. If there’s a number there, and that number matches a number on the recycling guidelines, we’re good for throwing that item in our recycling. But that thinking, while it makes sense, is causing a lot of issues in the recycling industry. Here’s why.

The number, called a resin identification code, does not indicate recyclability. It was developed by the plastics industry in 1988 as an identifier of the type of plastic in the item. The recycling industry unofficially adopted it because it was an easy way to classify different types of plastic and make a general statement about recyclability.

Because people have gotten used to using these numbers, and because manufacturers send confusing messages by placing them next to text that says “100% recyclable” or “please recycle,” many people assume that their presence automatically means an item is recyclable (or is recyclable anywhere).

The truth is that many items with this resin identification code are not recyclable or may not be an accepted item where you recycle.

So, you can see why using this code to identify what’s recyclable might not be the best option. As for what’s been done to help this problem, there are two major steps being taken. The first is that the arrows in the resin identification code, which have traditionally been associated with recycling, are being replaced with a solid triangle. The second step is for recycling companies and other entities who accept recycling to replace the numbers in their recycling guidelines with descriptions. If you look at Granger’s guidelines for drop-off recycling or curbside, you will notice that we have removed these numbers to prevent confusion. And although it would be difficult, if not impossible, to list every item accepted and not accepted, we believe listing the most common items that are acceptable and not acceptable will get better results than listing numbers.

Hopefully, these changes will have a positive effect on recycling contamination moving forward.


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