One of the most recognized logos, the recycling symbol, is about to undergo a major overhaul.
California recently became the first state to restrict the use of the well-known “hunting arrows” symbol. State lawmakers last week passed a bill that criminalizes affixing the symbol to any item that is not recyclable as determined by the state’s environmental regulator; it will become law unless Governor Gavin Newsom veto it.
California isn’t the only state trying to increase transparency around recycling. Earlier this year, Oregon this year created a task force to look at environmental labeling as part of sweeping legislation that makes packers more responsible for their waste. New York also introduced a bill in May to eliminate the three arrows from any non-recyclable item.
Forty years after the concept of recycling became widespread, these states are acknowledging what environmentalists have been saying for decades: Most plastic products are burned or sent to landfill. Items such as ziplock bags, yogurt pots, prescription bottles, clear cups, and plastic wrap can only be recycled at a handful of processing facilities in a few cities across the country.
The California bill would ensure that these items do not receive the “arrow hunting” symbol unless the state verifies that most of that plastic is actually made into new products.
“We have a very common problem with companies who basically lie to customers about the recyclability of their products and packaging,” John Hocevar, director of the oceans campaign at Greenpeace USA, told CBS MoneyWatch. “This California bill is a big step forward to end the greenwashing of plastic recycling. “
For those responsible for collecting and sorting recycling, nationwide consumer confusion over what goes in the recycle bin is a huge problem.
When New York State established a Center for Sustainable Materials Management earlier this year, its No.1 priority was to tackle “the incredible confusion around the symbol of recycling and recycling,” said Kate Walker , project director of the center.
More than two-thirds of Americans mistakenly believe that any plastic item with a recycling symbol can be recycled, the Consumer Brands Association found in a recent study. A fifth of respondents said recycling was more confusing than doing taxes or playing the stock market.
“We believe what we read on the label of the packaging. Customers want to believe that plastics are recyclable, and the label supports their belief,” wrote Kristan Mitchell, executive director of the Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association , to state lawmakers in March, supporting a bill to remove the recycling symbol from plastic.
A powerful symbol
The reason for the confusion is the resin’s identification code – a number from 1 to 7 surrounded by the chasing arrows appearing on plastic products since the early 1990s. Almost 40 states have adopted it over time. laws requiring these codes on almost all plastic items. These laws, however, were the result of quiet lobbying from the plastics industry, according to a 2020 National Public Radio survey and the 2005 book “Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage.”
Environmentalists opposed the codes almost immediately, complaining that their appearance on packaging misled consumers into believing items were recyclable when they were not. In the mid-1990s, states began trying to repeal the laws.
The Society of Plastics Industry (SPI), a trade group, said the industry had developed resin codes under “legislative pressure” and the numbers were never intended to indicate recyclability, but only to identify the type. plastic from which an object was made.
Indeed, the resin identification code came into being even before plastic recycling was a thing. “At the time the code was developed, plastics recycling was really in its infancy,” read a 1993 white paper produced by SPI and the National Recycling Council. “The arrows helped indicate that the container was potentially recyclable.”
NPR and Frontline documented that since the 1970s plastics industry insiders doubted that large-scale recycling would ever be possible. But it was a good marketing strategy: “If the public thinks recycling works, then they won’t be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of SPI, told NPR. (SPI was recently renamed the Plastics Industry Association.)
First step towards a distant dream
Decades later, America is further from the dream of large-scale recycling than ever. In 2018, less than 9% of plastic waste generated was recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A study published in the journal Science Advances that year found that less than a tenth of all plastic ever produced by humans had ever been recycled.
Once China, a premier destination for Americans’ plastic waste, began, there was pressure on states to come up with better disposal solutions.
Recycling advocates hope the California bill will make it easier for the state to track what is actually recycled and create public pressure for companies to come up with more environmentally friendly packaging, such as paper, biodegradable packaging or truly recyclable plastics.
“This is an opportunity,” said Kate Walker, of the New York State Center for Sustainable Materials Management. “The residents are getting angry, they advocate, and pressure is being exerted on these companies to develop recyclable items.”
Other proponents of recycling say labeling is only the first step.
“It’s great to have consistent, clear and understandable labeling, but where these bills aren’t enough is taking real responsibility for materials management and putting it on the producers, who put the packaging there, ”said Sydney Harris, policy and program manager. director of the Product Stewardship Institute, which supported the Oregon Producer Responsibility Act.
The Plastics Industry Association, which opposes the California bill, said the legislation “will result in less recycling and more material going to landfill.”
The industry claims that plastic is irreplaceable for certain uses, such as the packaging of fresh produce. “The alternatives cost more for small businesses (94% and more in some places), the environmental impacts of alternatives like paper or metal packaging are more resource intensive and emit more carbon emissions, and there is a lack of infrastructure for popular alternatives like compostable products, ”Shannon Crawford, group director of government affairs, told the California State Assembly in June.
The industry is asking the government to help fund research and development to recycle more types of plastic and develop markets for them. The advertising bill “would make it nearly impossible to develop end markets for non-designated recyclable materials from day one,” Crawford said.
But environmentalists say that is precisely the point. The labeling bill simply changes the labeling to conform to the reality that, after decades of research and legislative efforts, recycling has not saved the planet tons of plastic waste.
“This allows us to have a more realistic conversation about disposable packaging, especially single-use plastic,” said Hocevar, of Greenpeace. “Very few types of plastic packaging are recycled. Once people see it, I think they’re going to be even stronger in demanding better options.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to indicate that California is the first state to pass recycling labeling legislation. Oregon introduced recycling labeling legislation this year, but it was not passed.