Grappling with the infamous #7 PLA recycling code

What was the plastics industry thinking when it stuck compostable plastic into this recycling hodgepodge?

It wasn’t … thinking of recycling, that is. The industry says their category numbers are resin codes, not recycling codes. They identify different types of polymers. Each polymer recycles using a different method or technology. And #7 PLA is no exception.

A few years back, modifications made the symbols a little less recycling-forward. Recycling’s ubiquitous “chasing arrows” triangle that once outlined each number changed. It’s now a solid line to further distinguish the codes from recycling symbols.

Motivation for the mod? All resins do not recycle in all communities. The standards lords wanted to make sure everyone understood this simple truth.

But people use them for recycling. That makes them – albeit ipso facto – recycling symbols.

The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and U.S. Composting Council (USCC) work to dispel the confusion. They promote a unique symbol for compostables. This logo indicates a product, container, or packaging certified compostable by the BPI.

Know all RIC Codes, not just #7 PLA

Resin Indicator Codes (RICs) 1 through 6 identify specific plastic types. Everything else gets lumped together in the plastics proxy for the kitchen junk drawer — RIC #7/Other. When compostable resins joined the family, they landed in the junk drawer, too.

Code 7 compostable — a.k.a. #7/PLA — indicates a plant-based resin that will degrade under certain conditions. Unfortunately, a landfill isn’t one of them, though that’s where most of them end up. They’re not very “biodegradable” in the wild, either.

In truth, few communities recycle any Code 7 plastics. Code 7 compostables require processing at a modern, high-rate composting facility. But there just aren’t that many around. Even a #7/PLA composter might require in-house degradation testing if the plastic is not BPI-certified.

Compounding the problem, Code 7s are showing up in recycling streams for Nos. 1-6. In these bins, a Code 7 plastic represents a contaminant. One misplaced container can destroy an entire recycling batch if not removed. No. 7 /O (Other) will also contaminate an otherwise compostable No. 7/PLA stream.

Bottom line: pay attention to those RIC codes. Don’t assume any plastic is recyclable. Determine which resins the community does recycle, first. This is true for No. 7/Other and No. 7/PLA, too. If not on the local “accepted” list, make sure the resin doesn’t wind up in a recycle or compostables bin. Better yet, choose a product that can recycle where you live.

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