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The recycling symbol doesn't belong on things that aren’t recyclable

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Take a look at any piece of plastic packaging and you’ll see a triangle of chasing arrows with a number within, which looks obviously, unmistakably like the recycling symbol.

Except it isn’t.

On many plastic products, that stamp is actually a Resin Identification Code, which looks a lot like a recycling symbol, except for that number inside the triangle. It tells you which one of seven types of plastic the container or product is made of — but, crucially, not whether the plastic is recyclable.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone — one survey found that 92% of Americans did not recognize the Resin Identification Code or mistook it for a recycling symbol. That’s by design. The recycling symbol is one of the most recognized symbols in the world, and plastic makers intentionally mirrored it when choosing a “coding system” on their bottles. To this day, many consumers cheerfully continue to clog recycling systems with low-value materials that aren’t recyclable, all because of the RIC.

The confusion is made worse by the fact that the chasing arrows symbols suggest that all these plastics are maybe being recycled somewhere, when in fact they are not. Less than 9% of plastic used in the U.S. was recycled in 2018, according to the EPA. An estimated 16.5 million tons of plastic washes into the world’s oceans every year. Plastic is made out of fossil fuels, and the oil and gas industry is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in the hopes that plastic demand will drive fossil fuel demand. Recycling that single-use carton may seem sustainable, but it’s far from it.

The only truly sustainable choice is to avoid single-use plastics altogether. But that’s anathema to the plastic industry, which for generations has extolled recycling and litter cleanup instead of real (less profitable) solutions such as waste reduction and producer responsibility. The former president of the Plastics Industry Association, one of the plastic industry’s powerful trade groups, admitted as much in an interview with NPR, saying, “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment.”

One simple way to keep non-recyclable plastic out of the recycling system – and inform the public about the real limitations of plastics recycling – is to require truth in labelling.

Earlier this month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 343, increasing the standards for a product be labelled recyclable and prohibiting manufacturers from using the chasing-arrows symbol on items that are not recyclable. This restricts the recycling symbol to products that are collected in curbside programs that cover at least 60% of the state's population and are sorted into defined streams for reuse.

In California, less than 15% of single-use plastic is recaptured, let alone transformed into something else. Yet consumers, through no fault of their own, continue to toss anything marked with the chasing-arrows recycling symbol into their blue bins. This new law will help mitigate recycling costs by informing consumers and limiting the recycling stream to valuable, useful materials.

At the national level, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, introduced in March 2021 by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), is a sweeping bill that would support waste reduction, recycling and producer responsibility. It would also require labels to contain clear recycling information and prohibit companies from stamping the recycling symbol – or anything that might easily be mistaken for it – on products that are not recyclable.

As we wait for national action, California’s law may have a ripple effect on the states, changing the way producers manufacture and label plastic nationwide in a way similar to how California’s clean air standards set limits many other states chose to follow. More states should follow California’s lead and make sure the recycling symbol, and other symbols that look just like it, are reserved for recyclable items.

Photo credit: Heartlover1717 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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