The recycling symbol—those three arrows stamped on myriad plastic items—doesn’t mean what most people think it does, and a California bill wants to change that.
The California Legislature passed a bill yesterday that would ban companies from putting the recycling symbol on items that aren’t regularly recycled throughout the state. The bill is now awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature, and if signed into law, it would end a labeling practice that has confused consumers for decades and created major headaches for the solid waste industry.
The ubiquitous “chasing arrows” symbol wasn’t originally meant to appear on all plastics. Rather, it was designed by a college student for a contest in the early 1970s to symbolize paper recycling. The company that sponsored the contest released the symbol to the public domain. Confusion over the chasing arrows began in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when oil and plastic companies lobbied states to make resin identification codes—which included the arrows—mandatory on all plastic, even if it couldn’t be recycled easily.
While all plastics can technically be recycled, only a small percentage actually are. Only about 9 percent of all plastics are recycled in the US annually, and around 9 percent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled. The rest are incinerated or, more likely, landfilled or scattered as litter.
Though many plastics cause problems for recycling companies, plastic bags are particularly pernicious. Though most curbside programs don’t accept plastic bags, people still throw them into the bin, thinking they’re recyclable because they are labeled with the chasing arrows symbol.
It’s that confusion that led California State Sen. Ben Allen to propose the bill that is now on the governor’s desk. After fetching his newspaper every morning, Allen would throw the plastic bag it came in into his recycling bin. “I thought, oh, this is recyclable—but actually I was making the situation worse while trying to do the right thing,” Allen told CalMatters.
Allen’s proposal, known as Senate Bill 343, would require CalRecycle, the state’s recycling agency, to collect data on which types of plastic are most commonly recycled around the state. Only those that are recycled at a rate of 75 percent and don’t contain certain compounds like PFAS would be allowed to retain the chasing arrows symbol. All others would be stamped with a solid triangle around the resin identification code.
In practice, this means that plastics classified as 1 or 2—PETE and HDPE—would most likely be marked with the chasing arrows symbol. All others would get the solid triangle. If recycling of those other plastics takes off, they could earn their arrows back. Currently, though, only a handful of California municipalities accept anything beyond numbers 1 and 2 for curbside recycling.
The plastic and packaging industries have voiced opposition to the bill, saying that it would create a patchwork of regulations across the country and lead to more waste ending up in landfills.
California’s bill is the latest attempt to overhaul recycling systems that have been struggling since China stopped importing recycled plastics. Maine and Oregon both passed laws recently that levy a fee on packaging producers based largely on the amount of plastic they produce.
Plastic recycling was initially pushed by oil and gas companies as a solution to mounting concerns about plastic waste in the 1970s and 1980s. An investigation by NPR and PBS’s Frontline uncovered a decades-long campaign to convince the public that recycling would solve plastic’s sustainability problems. “The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire—we got to do what it takes to take the heat off because we want to continue to make plastic products,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, told NPR.
For years, the plan seemed to work. Recycling programs spread around the country, and plastic production soared, with over 300 million tons made every year.
Yet in the last few years, the tide has begun to turn once more. Plastic pollution is filling the oceans, and consumers have grown increasingly concerned about the ubiquity of microplastics in the environment. As scientists have developed ever more sophisticated ways to detect microplastics, they’ve been discovering them in an alarmingly wide range of places, from the top of mountains to fish nurseries—and even people’s poop.
This new bill isn’t likely to slow plastic’s exponential growth, but it could clear up some of the confusion and lead to a more streamlined recycling process. “Americans find recycling… more confusing than building IKEA furniture, doing their taxes, playing the stock market, or understanding their spouse,” Allen told CalMatters.