Packaging Recycling and Sustainability Symbols in the US: An Overview

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In the United States, there are various recycling and sustainability symbols for packaging materials like paper and plastic. Some symbols are codes that indicate material type, while others claim environmental attributes or responsibly sourced materials from audited forests.

In this guide, we explain what you need to know regarding Resin Identification Codes, Environmental Claims (16 CFR Part 260), USDA Certified Biobased Product Labels, and FSC Recycled Labels.


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Resin Identification Code

The purpose of the Resin Identification Code (RIC) system is to help consumers and waste recovery facilities identify the different types of materials. This facilitates the sorting and recycling process. However, the RIC doesn’t imply that packaging is recyclable.

Specifically, the RIC is a set of equilateral triangles containing a number in the middle and a code below the triangle. The numbers and the codes are used to identify the plastic resin out of which the packaging is made (e.g., 1-PET).

Is the Resin Identification Code mandatory?

According to our research, no US federal regulation mandates the use of the RIC or ASTM D7611/D7611M – which is the standard that currently sets the requirements for the use of RIC. However, many US states, such as California, have state laws that make the RIC mandatory for some products – plastic bottles, for example.

Additionally, as the RIC aids the recycling process, companies can benefit from using the system as more and more consumers choose to prioritize products that are perceived as more eco-friendly than their competitors.

Packaging materials

The RIC is applicable to products or packaging that are made of different types of plastics, such as PET or PVC. Here, we provide some examples:

  • Plastic bottles
  • Plastic rigid containers
  • Plastic jars

ASTM D7611/D7611M

The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) developed the RIC. In its original form, the symbols used as part of the RIC consisted of clockwise chasing arrows to form a triangle that enclosed a number.

The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) adopted the RIC system under the standard ASTM D7611/D7611M—Standard Practice for Coding Plastic Manufactured Articles for Resin Identification, and in 2013 revised the symbol by changing it to a triangle to avoid misunderstandings on its meaning and use.

The reason is that the chasing arrows are commonly associated with “recyclable products”, while the goal of the RIC is to identify resin content, not to state if a certain product or packaging is recyclable.

Requirements

ASTM D7611/D7611M specifies the coding numbers for 7 types of resins below:

Material / Substance Code Number
Polyethylene terephthalate PETE or PET 1
High-density polyethylene HDPE or PE-HD 2
Poly (vinyl chloride) PVC or V 3
Low-density polyethylene LDPE or PE-LD 4
Polyethylene PP 5
Polystyrene PS 6
Other resins Other or O 7

It also outlines that environmental claims such as “recyclable” should not be used near the RIC, as the code doesn’t imply product recyclability.

State regulations

The SPI, currently the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), surveyed the US and found that at least 36 states mandate the usage of RICs to specify the main resin type used in some plastic-containing products.

We list below ten such states that require RICs:

  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Texas
  • Virginia

Note that requirements might vary according to the state, although they are similar.

Costs

You might need to invest in necessary lab testing to identify the materials that are used in your packaging in order to use the right RIC codes. You may also need new molds.

Packaging Symbols United States

16 CFR Part 260 – Guides for the use of environmental marketing claims

16 CFR Part 260 contains guidelines that regulate the provision of environmental claims by providing the FTC’s views on deceptive and unfair claims.

Packaging materials

The guides apply to marketing claims about the environmental attributes of products, packaging, or services. Here are some examples of packaging mentioned in the guides:

  • Compostable bags
  • Grass clipping bags
  • Bottles

General principles

16 CFR Part 260.3 covers general principles applicable to environmental marketing claims. Companies should:

a. Ensure that qualifications and disclosures are obvious and understandable by using plain language and large type.

b. Ensure that the disclosures are near the qualified claim.

c. Avoid providing inconsistent statements or distracting and contradicting elements to their disclosures.

d. Specify whether an environmental claim refers to the product, its packaging, or a service.

e. Ensure the clarity of any comparative environmental marketing claims made to avoid confusing the consumer.

Claims

16 CFR Parts 260.7 to 260.17 cover various types of claims relevant to packaging. We list a few claims below.

a. Compostable claims – It is deceptive for manufacturers to claim that a package is compostable if the packaging materials do not break down in a compost pile.

b. Free-of claims – It is deceptive to imply that a package does not contain, or is free of, a substance if said package contains that substance or similar substances with similar environmental risks.

c. Ozone-safe and ozone-friendly claims – False claims, implied or otherwise, that a package is either ozone-safe or ozone-friendly, are deceptive.

d. Recycled content claims – Claiming that a package is made of recycled content is considered deceptive unless said package comprises recycled materials.

e. Renewable energy claims – Marketers should not make renewable energy claims regarding the way a package is manufactured unless they can provide renewable energy certificates.

Requirements

Marketers should ensure that interpretations of their environmental claims are based on “competent and reliable scientific evidence” produced from analysis, research, studies, or tests performed by qualified persons. The evidence should justify the marketing claims and be based on relevant accepted standards.

For example, marketers who make non-toxic claims should provide evidence that the package is not toxic for humans and the environment.

Additionally, if the context of the claim is unclear, the claim must specify whether it refers to the product or its packaging. For example, the labeling of a shower curtain’s plastic packaging as “recyclable” without a detailed explanation is a deceptive claim, as it doesn’t clearly indicate if it is the product, the packaging, or both, that are recyclable.

Costs

Marketers might incur costs related to the acquisition of the evidence mentioned above. For instance, they may need to pay for tests to show that their packages are non-toxic, or that it is compostable.

USDA Certified Biobased Product Label

The USDA’s BioPreferred® Program aids users in identifying which products or packaging contain biobased content. The Program also assures users of the accuracy of the products’ or package’s content.

Is the Biobased Product label mandatory?

The USDA’s BioPreferred® Program includes two major parts:

a. Voluntary labeling initiative for biobased products.

b. Mandatory purchasing requirements for federal agencies and their contractors.

Voluntary labeling initiative

Biobased products or packages that comply with the requirements of the initiative can carry the USDA Certified Biobased Product label. This label identifies the product or packaging as containing renewable biological ingredients and is not mandatory.

However, products and packaging that feature the label might have a competitive advantage among consumers and distributors that prioritize sustainable products.

Federal agencies

If you sell some types of product to federal agencies (including some types of single-use packaging), you must ensure that your product or packaging contains a minimum biobased content (e.g 25%) and comply with the requirements of the program.

Packaging materials

The USDA lists multiple certification product categories, many of which are designated for federal purchasing preference (and as such, are identified with “FP”).

One such category is “Product Packaging”, described as a typically single-use item that protects and holds a product when it is stored, distributed, sold, or used. Covered packaging should have a minimum biobased content of 25%, and does not include:

  • Shopping bags
  • Trash bags
  • Packing materials
  • Insulating materials

Requirements

The USDA’s BioPreferred® Program’s product certification process takes about 90 days to complete and comprises the application, testing, and certification phases. We briefly explain this below.

1. Application

Fill out the “USDA Participant Agreement”, add products, and apply for certification. The USDA will notify you upon receiving your application.

2. Testing

You must schedule a biobased content test against the requirements of ASTM D6866 with an approved testing lab and fill out the relevant documentation.

3. Certification

If your product passes the test, you will receive instructions on how to use the certification label and market your product.

Note that Certified products are subject to regular audits.

Costs

You currently do not need to pay to participate in the program. However, you must pay approximately USD 400 for the biobased content testing of each sample. You are also responsible for shipping costs.

FSC Recycled Label

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a non-profit organization that aims to implement a scientific and responsible management system to administer forests around the globe.

Companies can use the FSC’s labels on their products or packaging if said products support responsible forestry by complying with the FSC requirements.

FSC Recycled label

Products that bear the FSC Recycled label indicate that the product is made from 100% recycled content.

FSC Mix label

When products bear the FSC Mix label, it means that they are made using a mixture of materials from FSC-certified forests, recycled materials, or FSC-controlled wood.

FSC 100% Label

Products that bear an FSC 100% Label indicate that the products are made of materials sourced from forests that have been audited by an independent third party and comply with the FSC’s social and environmental standards.

Is the FSC recycled label mandatory?

According to our knowledge, the FSC Recycled label is not mandatory to use. However, companies could still benefit from using the FSC Recycled label to attract consumers (and retailers) who are interested in more sustainable products. Products with FSC Recycled labels are also appealing to retailers that only sell sustainable products.

Packaging materials

The FSC Recycled label can be applied to packaging materials such as:

  • Timber
  • Fiber
  • Paper and board

Requirements

In this section, we summarize the FSC certification process.

1. Submit a certification application

Companies must choose an FSC-accredited certification body and submit a certification application.

2. Assessment

Companies must be audited by the FSC certification audit team in accordance with relevant FSC requirements before they can receive the FSC certification.

3. Certification

Upon being approved, you must sign a Trademark License Agreement in order to complete the certification process. You can then use the FSC symbol on your products or packaging.

Note that annual audits are also required.

Costs

The cost to receive FSC certification varies depending on the FSC-certified agency. You can contact an FSC-certified agency in your region for a quote.

BPI Certification Mark

The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) is an organization that advocates the use of biodegradable and compostable materials. The BPI Certification Mark Scheme allows companies to verify the compostability and biodegradability of their products or packaging, via relevant ASTM standards.

Is the BPI Certification Mark mandatory?

The BPI Certification Mark is a voluntary mark. However, you could apply for the BPI Certification Mark Scheme as a means to verify and demonstrate that your products or packaging is made using biodegradable or compostable materials.

Having a BPI Certification Mark on the products or packaging showcases the enterprise’s value in social responsibility to some extent. This serves a branding purpose and, in turn, attracts customers with environmental preferences.

Packaging materials

The BPI Certification Mark can be applied to packaging and products such as:

  • Consumer-facing packaging
  • Market-facing packaging
  • Cups
  • Bags

Requirements

If you want to apply for the BPI certification scheme, you should follow the BPI certification checklist, as summarized below.

1. Pre-assessment

First of all, you should complete and send documents such as:

  • BPI Confidential Disclosure Agreement (CDA)
  • BPI Member Profile Form
  • BPI Application with product photos
  • BPI PFA Statement
  • BPI Product Worksheet
  • Safety Data Sheet (SDS)

2. Testing

You must arrange testing and technical review with a BPI-Approved Lab against the relevant standards (e.g. ASTM).

3. Artwork Review

After receiving access to the Certification Mark artwork, you must submit the product or packaging artwork to BPI for confirmation. The artwork must meet the requirements for use as outlined in the license agreement.

4. Certification

You then need to sign and return the license agreement and pay the relevant fees, in order to complete the certification process.

Costs

According to BPI’s FAQ, the fee for using BPI Certification Mark is USD 1,500 for first-time applicants. The certifications are valid for 3 years. Each recertification costs USD 1,000.

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    Disclaimer: The Site cannot and does not contain legal advice. The legal information is provided for general informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. Accordingly, before taking any actions based upon such information, we encourage you to consult with the appropriate professionals. We do not provide any kind of legal advice. THE USE OR RELIANCE OF ANY INFORMATION CONTAINED ON THE SITE IS SOLELY AT YOUR OWN RISK.

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    Sources: Our articles are written in part based on publicly available information, and our own practical experience relating to product compliance. These are some of the primary sources we use:

    • ec.europa.eu
    • echa.europa.eu
    • ecfr.gov
    • cpsc.gov
    • ftc.gov
    • fcc.gov
  • 3 Responses to “Packaging Recycling and Sustainability Symbols in the US: An Overview

    1. P W at 11:25 pm

      Offering clarity on second paragraph under California SB-343 on RIC and use of same with and without chasing arrows. From the bill:
      (4) Existing law requires all rigid plastic bottles and rigid plastic containers sold in the state to be labeled with a code that indicates the resin used to produce the bottles or containers, with specified numbers and letters placed in relation to a triangle.
      This bill would prohibit the resin identification code from being placed inside a chasing arrows symbol, unless the rigid plastic bottle or rigid plastic container meets the requirements for statewide recyclability.

    2. Jackie at 4:28 am

      Hello, I am curious about the fork, knife, plate symbol. That symbol is required for a package in Thailand. If we want to use the same packaging in the US and Canada is that OK? Can the package be used throughout all supply chain or would there need to be separate ones?

    3. John Kuijpers at 4:14 pm

      Clear article/information. What I am wondering: Does an assembled product (which cannot be taken apart normally) of different plastics (PP (92%) and PE (8%)) also need to have the RIC on it? And if so which code (5 PP, 7 OTHERS)?

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