The questions and issues surrounding plastics are influenced not only by the materials, but also by the structure and behavior of the industry that produces them. The plastics industry is powerful and prominent, and no discussion of plastics would be complete without considering its cultural and economic impacts as well as its technical characteristics.

Resin production and industrial concentration

Virgin plastic resin is produced by a small number of corporations. In 1995, for example, three corporations produced 94% of all PET resin. Resin factories are large and streamlined to create a one-way flow of uniform product because of economy of scale. Because of their large size, these corporate producers control the choices available to manufactures and consumers.

Plastic resin factories are also concentrated geographically, mainly on the Gulf Coast, because the raw material ethylene is supplied mainly by pipeline. Resin customers, on the other hand, are widely dispersed. This geographic separation requires large amounts of energy for transportation, contributing to the intensive use of natural resources.

Recycled content

To increase the domestic market for post-consumer resources of all kinds, many governments have required manufacturers to use a certain percentage of reclaimed material in their feedstock. Plastics are no exception to this trend. Oregon, for example, produced a flurry of research and development in plastics when its legislature required 25% recycled content in plastic containers. Such legislation recognizes that although recycling does not reduce energy use or emissions to the degree that reuse does, mandating recycled content sets forces in motion that will replace virgin material with reclaimed resources, so long as the recycled content comes from post-consumer bottles or packaging and not from in-house manufacturing scrap.

In general, recycled-content laws partially close the materials-flow loop and help foster consideration of the full life-cycle of products. By recycling, plastic manufacturers take some degree of responsibility for the fate of the materials they produce. California’s SB235 and SB2092 are examples of mandatory content legislation that require, respectively, 25% and 30% reprocessed post-consumer plastic contents in a narrow class of plastic containers and trash bags.

The direct effect of recycled-content legislation is on manufacturers of containers and plastic film, not on resin producers. However, for recycled-content containers to perform adequately, the virgin and recycled materials must be compatible. The technical interchange required to assure compatibility requires virgin-resin manufacturers to make manufacturing decisions that benefit the makers of recycled-content containers.

The virgin-plastics industry has resisted such cooperation by strongly opposing recycled-content legislation, and has defeated or weakened efforts to institute stronger laws in Oregon and California. According to Senior Editor Victor Wigotsky of Plastics Engineering magazine, the two largest plastic technology consortiums — the American Plastics Council and The Society of the Plastics Industry — have made a concerted effort to “assure a measure of restraint and reason in the drafting of packaging legislation” and to “oppose the passage of some 180 restrictive legislative proposals in 32 states.”

This behavior suggests that the bigger their share of the packaging market, the more forcefully virgin-plastic manufacturers will oppose recycled content laws.

Chasing arrows and the resin code

Most plastic containers and many other plastic products are now imprinted with a number that represents the type of plastic used, as previously noted in Table 1. This number appears inside a triangle of chasing arrows as shown below, and the resin’s initials are usually stamped below the symbol. This usage first appeared in 1988 when The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) appropriated the chasing arrows, a universal symbol of recyclability developed and used by the recycling industry. After incorporating the chasing arrows into this label, the SPI promoted this usage aggressively. Within the USA, this labeling has been institutionalized by state governments and is now required by 39 states. It is also widely used internationally.

But although SPI’s use of the chasing arrows with the resin code may be good for the plastics industry, it has been very costly and irritating to recycling collectors. The public sees the chasing arrows and assumes not only that anything stamped with them is technically recyclable, but that local collectors and processors can handle them. People then discard all grades of coded plastics into the same recycling bins. The recycling collector, however, sees much of this material as contamination, since there is often no infrastructure for taking the material back, let alone paying for it once it is cleaned and separated. The result is a new category of waste known as “residue.” Residue is a major cost problem for materials recovery operators, particularly those with multiple-materials recovery facilities.

Aside from the misleading arrows, the industry’s code numbers confuse the public into mixing containers that can’t be processed together. For example, blow-molded and injection-molded HDPE bottles have different melting behaviors, so they cannot be processed together into a high-quality recycled material. Consumers sometimes blame recyclers if they try to contribute to the recycling effort but are told a program cannot accept their containers.

In its Fall 1988 “COPPE Quarterly” newsletter, the Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment (an industry group and predecessor to APC) acknowledged that the legislatures in Florida, Minnesota, and Wisconsin adopted the coding system “as an alternative to more stringent legislation.” One COPPE news story discussed an editorial in The New York Times about the decision made in Nassau County, New York to ban some plastic containers to save landfill space. This voluntary coding system for resin identification was an alternative that seemed acceptable at the time.

Since the code is unclear and misleading, recycling trade groups and even governments have made attempts to modify the symbol, starting in the fall of 1988. The plastics industry’s continuing resistance to changing the code suggests that the symbol’s lack of clarity benefits plastic sales. Attempts to modify the code in California, the state of Washington, and Colorado were defeated by the campaigns and lobbying efforts of APC and its industrial allies. Negotiations in 1993 between SPI and the National Recycling Coalition intended to resolve the coding issues ended with no action to clarify the misleading labeling.

On the other hand, the plastics industry and the APC in particular have put big money into a public relations campaign to convince the public that plastics recycling is easy, economical, and a big success. Between November 1992 and July 1993, the APC spent $18 million in a national advertising campaign to “Take Another Look at Plastics.” While trumpeting large numbers of pounds of plastic recycled, they neglected to point out that in the year cited, 1993, 15 billion pounds were produced but only 1 billion pounds recycled. The Environmental Defense Fund, which released these figures, found that the small increases in recycling “did not even come close to keeping up with increased production of virgin plastic over the same period.” (See Figure 2) The plastics industry promotes recycling to breed public support in the market for plastic products and packaging.