Tuesday, June 19, 2012

You Know Those SPI Recycling Symbols? They Show That The Plastic Is Recyclable, Not Biodegradable

Last week while eating dinner in a restaurant [1], I overheard someone at the next table explaining to her dining companions the meaning of SPI recycling symbols, such as this one:
The topic came up as this table of elderly diners were packing up their unfinished portions in plastic containers provided by the restaurant. At first, the conversation was about the microwavability of the containers, but then it went on to the SPI symbols which were visible on the top of their plastic boxes. One women clearly stated (and was not challenged by the three other people at her table) that the symbols meant that the containers were biodegradable. The three arrows in a circle were used to show that the container "would return to the earth", and then without taking a break, she then looked at her husband and said "just like what's going to happen to you soon".

As you can imagine, I was quite surprised that someone would think this (about the symbols, not her husband). While it is understandable that someone could create this illusion by themselves if the symbols were only recently introduced, the symbols have been around for decades, well before biodegradability become the rage that it currently is [2]. How a 20-year old recycling code could morph in someones mind into a biodegradable code is beyond me.

I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and did not try to correct her. Embarrassing her in front of her husband and friends would not have helped our cause, and beyond that, I seriously doubted it would have done much good anyway.

[1] It was a wonderful seafood dinner on the restaurant's dock overlooking the water in Newport Beach, California. Jealous yet?

[2] I am well aware of earlier efforts (and the resulting blowback) from circa 1990 to create "biodegradable" plastics, such as when cornstarch was added to polyethylene to create "biodegrable polyethylene" garbage bags. But it has only been in the last few years when polylactic acid hit the big time that the general public has really had to think about the difference between recycling and biodegradation.

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