Understanding labeling and product definitions is important when discussing or writing about plastic alternatives.  All plastic alternatives should meet the definitions and standards set forth by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)ASTM standards (D6400 or D6868) require both individual product and individual ingredient testing for biodegradability. To be certified as biodegradable, finished products must both disintegrate, and pass tests for plant toxicity and heavy metals.  

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the responsible party for enforcement against false or deceptive product labelingThese organization help products meet material requirements and help to prevent miscommunication and product greenwashing to the general public 

Certification in the U.S. is  provided by, the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). The U.S. Composting Council recognizes BPI as North America’s leading standard for certified compostable products and packaging. A non-profit organization established in 1999, BPI’s program ensures that products and packaging displaying their logo have been independently tested and verified according to scientifically based standards before receiving certification. BPI promotes best practices for the diversion and recovery of compostable materials through municipal and commercial composting. They also have a searchable database for  BPI certified products 

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Plastic Categories:

There are two general categories—

1. Thermoplastics: Can be mechanically recycled through a heat and pressure process.

2. Thermosets: Cannot be mechanically recycled due to its chemical bonding makeup.

Biodegradable Plastic: Products created from ingredients that can be consumed by microorganisms, allowing finished products to physically break down during composting.

Compostable: Products susceptible to biological decomposition in an aerobic compost system, such that the material becomes visually indistinguishable, breaking down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass.

Compostable Product: Any product specifically manufactured to break down in a compost system at the end of its useful life. It can be made from plastic, paper, or plant fibers, along with other ingredients that provide necessary form and functionality. These types of products include items such as bags, take-out containers, coffee pods, food packaging, cups, plates and service ware that are used and purchased by the food service industry, convenience stores and grocery stores.


Commodity Grade Plastics (residential)

Post-consumer recycled content is defined by the Federal Trade Commission as recycled content material that has been recovered or diverted from the municipal solid waste stream. An example of that is an empty plastic soda bottle that has been placed in a recycling bin or cart.

To that end, a coding resin system was developed by the Society of Plastics Industries:

#1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE )

#2 – High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

#3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

#4 – Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

#5 – Polypropylene (PP)

#6 – Polystyrene (PS)

Unfortunately, not all plastic is recyclable in your curbside bin or cart. It is important to know which plastics your local government accepts in any residential or commercial recycling program to keep materials clean and free of contaminants, i.e., the wrong plastic materials, so they can be marketed properly and turned into new products.

Marketing of post-consumer plastic requires separation and sorting from other curbside recyclable material after it is received at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). In post-consumer plastics recycling, recent developments in automated identification and sorting technology (laser technology) have increased the economic competitiveness for recycled materials. Even though new technologies have made recycling easier than ever, products are only recyclable if there is a market for that material in your area, so remember to stay up to date with your local recycling guidelines.

Once they leave a MRF, materials are sent to plastic reclamation facilities for further processing, where they are sorted, chopped, and washed. Reclamation facilities produce three categories of plastic feedstock used for manufacturing new plastic products, including:

– Flake–chopped plastic containers.

– Powder–pulverized flake.

– Pellet–flake that is mechanically melted, extruded, and cut into beads.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a list of companies that have received FDA approval to manufacture and sell recycled-content plastic containers for food contact applications.

Plastic Bags and MRFs: Plastic bags are a plastic film material that consumers often place in recycling or compost containers, but plastic film is a problematic contaminant for MRF facilities and plastic bags should instead be reused or returned to grocers and retailers who collect plastic bags at store locations. MRF facilities use automated equipment to shake, rattle and roll waste materials for sorting and plastic bags often get caught in sorting equipment causing delays in operation and creating serious problems for MRF equipment. Plastic bags are often difficult to compost unless they are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI).

Engineered Grade Plastics 

Plastics recovered from durable goods waste streams, such as brown goods (electronics such as computers) and automobiles (vehicles), are considered engineered grade plastics. These plastics contain blended resins and/or additives that increase properties such as rigidity, and chemical, fire, and impact resistance. Below are a few of the common engineering grade plastics used by the manufacturing and industrial sectors:

– Acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS)

– Polyurethane (PU)

– Nylon

– Polycarbonate (PC)

The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics provides a searchable database to identify industries and establishments associated with resin production, distribution and use. Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes are provided for these entities.