Are plastics all the same?

Classify and catalogue. During his trip aboard the expedition ship named Beagle that started in 1813, Charles Darwin collected a great amount of animal and plant species and catalogued them one by one. This activity led him to the conclusion that all the species evolve and transform, demonstrating his theory On the Origin of the Species. Categorizing and classifying is of fundamental importance also outside a purely scientific context.

After the explosion of plastic use during the ‘60s, technological research and development made possible the creation of new materials, improving their performance to be adapted to specific purposes. In this context, the more properly named plastic materials have developed. When we talk about plastic, we actually talk about a large family that includes many different kind of materials that can be used and applied in various differently. This is the reason why the name becomes plastics in this industry. Each one of this material has its own name and acronym but this cannot be known without a chemical analysis.

With the development of the recycling systems there was still a question open:how can people understand what can be recycled and what cannot?

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With the aim of putting in communication the producer with the recycling entities through the consumer, the International Resin Identification Coding System was created to catalogue this undefined multitude of plastic materials in the market. Created in 1988 by the Society of Plastic Industry, this system gathers this material by type in order to correctly identify the type of recycling. This Classification was introduced by the European Commission in 1997.

Each numbered category is integrated in the Möbius Loop, universal symbol for recycling – when inside there is a percentage, it means the quantity of material that was recycled.

Theoretically, all categories from 1 to 6 indicates that the material is recyclable while in the last one “other” all the others that are not recyclable. In Practical terms, this is nor always true either because the technology able to deliver a good quality is missing or because the recycling systems are not prepared to receive and recycle those materials. One should always check with the recycling centre of the area to efficiently recycle and avoid the non-recyclable materials.

Surely, this system was useful in an age when the recycling was at its beginning, As material technologies continue to grow, combining material from different sources such as paper and plastic, it is necessary to explore alternative methods to communicate through the products themselves. Moreover, since this identification system is only voluntary, other different methodologies have been developed, sending a confusing and ambiguous message.

When we find ourselves in front of a plastic object to throw in the correct recycling bin, each one of us should ask themselves three questions:
– What is it? Meaning, of which material is it made?
– Where does it go? In the plastic recycling bin or in a separate one
– How should it be treated? The action to be done before throwing it like washing or separate different materials.

Once all these questions have been answered, it is quite sure that each material can be correctly disposed, increasing its possibility to be recycled.

Just like Darwin, thanks to a meticulous cataloguing, has validated his hypothesis on the evolution of the species, an effort in creating a unique and mandatory system could lead to the validation of the hypothesis that plastic is a necessity for our daily lives but had to be consciously used and especially correctly recycled.

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