States take aim at ubiquitous — and false — “recycling” symbol

One of the most recognized logos of the last half-century, the recycling symbol, is about to get tossed.

California is set to become the second state to restrict the use of the widely known “chasing arrows” symbol. The state Assembly is on the verge of passing a bill that criminalizes putting the symbol on any item that isn’t recyclable as deemed by the state’s environmental regulator.

In doing so, it follows neighboring Oregon, which eliminated the “chasing arrows” symbol from plastic containers and is creating a task force to examine environmental labeling as part of sweeping legislation that makes packagers more responsible for their waste. New York introduced a bill in May to eliminate the three arrows from any nonrecyclable item.

Forty years after the concept of recycling went mainstream, these states are acknowledging what environmentalists have been saying for decades: The majority of plastic products are burned or sent to the landfill. Items such as ziplock bags, yogurt cups, prescription bottles, clear beverage cups and plastic films can only be recycled in a handful of processing facilities in a few cities nationwide. California’s bill would guarantee these items don’t get the “chasing arrows” symbol, unless and until the state verifies that a majority of them are truly collected turned into new plastic products.

“We have a really widespread problem of corporations essentially lying to customers about the recyclability of their products and packaging,” John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA, told CBS MoneyWatch. “This California bill is a huge step in ending ‘greenwashing’ about plastic recycling.”

“Incredible confusion”

For the people responsible for collecting and sorting recycling, the nationwide consumer confusion about what goes in the recycle bin is a huge problem. 

When New York State created a Center for Sustainable Materials Management earlier this year, its No. 1 priority was addressing “the incredible confusion around the recycling symbol and recycling,” said Kate Walker, the center’s project director. 

More than two-thirds of Americans believe, incorrectly, that any plastic item with a recycling symbol on it can be recycled, the Consumer Brands Association found in a recent study. One-fifth of respondents said that recycling was more confusing than doing their taxes or playing the stock market.  

“We believe what we read on the package label. Customers want to believe plastics are recyclable, and the label supports their belief,” Kristan Mitchell, executive director of the Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association, wrote to state legislators in March, in support of the a bill to remove the recycling symbol from plastic.

Why recycling efforts are getting trashed 06:31

A potent symbol

The reason for the confusion is the resin identification code — a number from 1 to 7 encircled by the chasing arrows appearing on plastic products since early 1990s. Nearly 40 states over time adopted laws requiring these codes on nearly every plastic item. Those laws, however, were the result of quiet lobbying from the plastic industry, according to a 2020 investigation from National Public Radio and the 2005 book “Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage.”

Environmentalists opposed the codes almost immediately, complaining their appearance on packages misled consumers to think items were recyclable when they weren’t. By the mid-1990s, states began trying to repeal the laws.

The Society of Plastics Industry (SPI), a trade group, said the industry developed resin codes under “legislative pressure,” and that the numbers were never meant to indicate recyclability, but only to identify what type of plastic an object was made from.

Indeed, the resin identification code came into being before recycling plastic was even a thing. “At the time the code was developed, plastics recycling was truly in its infancy,” reads a 1993 white paper produced by the SPI and the National Recycling Council. “The arrows helped to indicate that the container was potentially recyclable.” 

NPR and Frontline documented that, since the 1970s, plastic industry insiders have doubted that large-scale recycling would ever be possible. But it was a good marketing strategy: “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former SPI president, told NPR. (The SPI recently rebranded as the Plastics Industry Association.)

First step toward distant dream

Decades later, America is as far as ever from the dream of large-scale recycling. 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 one-tenth of all the plastic ever produced by humans has ever been recycled.

Once China, a top destination for Americans’ plastic waste, started rejecting it in 2018, the pressure was on for states to come up with better disposal solutions.

Advocates of recycling hope California’s bill will make it easier for the state to track what’s actually being recycled and create public pressure for companies to come up with more eco-friendly packaging — such as paper, biodegradable packages or truly recyclable plastics.

“This is an opportunity,” said Kate Walker, of the New York State Center for Sustainable Materials Management. “Residents get upset, they advocate, and the pressure is put on these companies to develop items that are recyclable.”

Other recycling proponents say that labeling is only the first step.

“It’s great to have consistent, clear, understandable labeling, but where these bills specifically fall short is taking the real responsibility for managing materials, and putting it on the producers, who put the packaging out there,” said Sydney Harris, policy and program manager at the Product Stewardship Institute, which supported Oregon’s producer-responsibility law.

New film addresses global plastic crisis 06:12

The Plastics Industry Association, which opposes California’s bill, said the legislation “will result in less recycling and more materials going to landfill.”

The industry says that plastic is irreplaceable for some uses, such as packaging fresh produce. “Alternatives cost more for small businesses (94% and more in some places), the environmental impacts of alternatives like paper packaging or metal are more resource-intensive and emit more carbon emissions, and there is a lacking infrastructure for popular alternatives like compostables,” Shannon Crawford, the group’s state government affairs director, told California’s state Assembly in June.

The industry is asking government to help fund research and development into recycling more types of plastic and developing markets for them. The advertising bill “would make it next to impossible to develop end markets for materials not designated recyclable on day one,” Crawford said.

But environmentalists say that’s precisely the point. The labeling bill simply shifts the labeling to comply with the reality that, after decades of research and legislative efforts, recycling hasn’t saved the planet from tons of plastic waste.

“It enables us to have a more reality-based conversation about throwaway packaging, especially single-use plastic,” said Hocevar, of Greenpeace. “Very few types of plastic packaging are recycled. Once people realize that, I think they’re going to be even louder in demanding better options.”