California Bill Aims to Clarify Recycling Symbols

California to clarify recycling symbols

Those three arrows in a triangle are an easy shorthand for recyclables, but there's one problem: just because the symbol is printed on a product, doesn't necessarily mean the item is recyclable. It simply informs consumers of the type of plastic used based on the number within the arrows. A new California bill would ban companies from putting the triple arrows on a product unless it is, in fact, recyclable in the state. The bill passed the Senate last week and will be signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, making California the first state to legally clarify the recycling symbol.

Why This Matters

The recycling system is bogged down by plastics that can't be recycled. According to the EPA only 25% of all US waste is actually recycled and less than 10% of all plastic ever produced has ever been recycled. The new bill would help ensure that recycling facilities actually get recyclable items and give consumers an accurate idea of whether or not the item they're buying can be recycled. Ultimately, it could motivate companies to create more recyclable products -- a win considering the US generated more than 35 million tons of plastic in 2018.

From the Lawmakers

"It's a basic truth-in-advertising concept," California State Senator Ben Allen, a Democrat and the bill's lead sponsor, told the New York Times: "We have a lot of people who are dutifully putting materials into the recycling bins that have the recycling symbols on them, thinking that they're going to be recycled, but actually, they're heading straight to the landfill."

Beyond Recycling

While reforming recycling labeling is a worthwhile endeavor, some states have taken their approach to waste a step further by adopting producer responsibility legislation. In Maine and Oregon, corporations are now responsible for the cost of recycling their packaging. This takes the financial burden off of taxpayers and puts the onus on companies to manage the entire lifecycle of their products.

The Oregon law also established a "Truth in Labeling" task force to "study and evaluate misleading or confusing claims" about the symbol and a product's recyclability. The task force is supposed to report back next June, and it could have other state legislation to use as inspiration for clarifying those recycling claims.

The New York Times: Is Your Plastic Actually Being Recycled? | NYT Opinion, December 9th, 2019.