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Study Clears Up Ambiguity of Items Deemed ‘Recyclable’

Over 2,000 American recycling programs were examined for the 2015-16 Centralized Study on Availability of Recycling study to conclude that the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) recognizes 49 types of packaging. Thirteen packaging trade associations and non-profit groups who focus on recycling performed this study to determine what items the SPC deems “recyclable” and not recyclable, and how they get to this conclusion. With so much ambiguity surrounding the term, the 13 associations and non-profits banded together for a collective effort and ended up agreeing with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission: there has to be a strong likelihood the package will be recycled, which relies heavily on acceptance of recycling programs.

All plastic bottles, cups and rigid containers except polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene (PS), aluminum beverage cans and glass bottles, as well as aerosol containers (both steel and aluminum) are the most likely to be recycled, since recycling programs in over 60 percent of the population accept them. The Federal Trade Commission’s Guide for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims has set the industry standard for the levels of acceptance of recycling programs at 60 percent; meaning if less than 60 percent of the population has an available program that accepts recycled items, then that lack of acceptance is a barrier to the practical recyclability of the item. On the other hand, if over 60 percent of the population’s recycling programs accept the item, then it’s considered a recyclable item without any barriers.

Hard to recycle items such as expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging was found to be accepted in less than 20 percent of our population’s recycling programs, as well as paper ice cream tubs, plastic cutlery, paper cups, squeezable polyethylene tubes and paper containers for foodservice applications. Claims of recyclability can’t be made about items like rigid polystyrene containers, polypropylene and polyethylene lids, aluminum foil food containers or bulky plastics either. However, initiatives can be taken to increase the likelihood of recyclability of packaging types that have less than 60 percent acceptance in recycling programs. Educating the community and having an open dialogue will hopefully spur more acceptance of collection programs. For other items, packaging needs to be improved by way of package design, recycling infrastructure and reprocessing technologies in order to have a better standing as a recyclable item.

It’s important to keep in mind that accepting an item as recyclable is only the first step. After being accepted, it needs to be properly sorted, sold to a reprocessor, deconstructed then reconstructed to a new material.

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