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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rethinking the Recycling Symbol

Air Date: Week of

Over 90% of plastic in the United States does not get recycled, much of it ending up in landfills. (Photo: Alan Levine, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The chasing arrow symbol that many consumers think means a plastic product is recyclable often doesn’t mean that in practice, since most plastics are of little to no economic value. Jennie Romer is Deputy Assistant Administrator for Pollution Prevention at EPA and joins Host Aynsley O’Neill to explain how revising the use of the recycling symbol could reduce consumer confusion.


DOERING: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston this is Living on Earth. I’m Jenni Doering.

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

So, let’s say you’ve just polished off a tub of creamy yogurt. Time to rinse and recycle… right? Well, the sad truth about your yogurt tub is that it is probably not going to be recycled at all. That’s because most of the yogurt in grocery stores comes in a tub made of plastic number 5, polypropylene, and it’s of little to no economic value. So that little triangle symbol that you think means it’s recyclable… well, it doesn’t mean much. But now the federal government is looking into updating those symbols so that consumers aren’t duped. The Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guides” date back to 1992 and they’re supposed to help companies avoid greenwashing when advertising their products. The Environmental Protection Agency is getting involved in the latest update and joining me now to explain is Jennie Romer, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Pollution Prevention at EPA. Jennie, welcome to Living on Earth!

ROMER: Thanks so much for having me.

O'NEILL: So, in our everyday lives, we see that iconic triangular arrow label on a lot of products. And I think the first thing I think, and a lot of us think is, oh, good, it's recyclable. But from what I understand, that's not always the case. What do recycling labels actually tell us about a product? And to what extent might that system confuse the average consumer?

ROMER: The symbols on the bottom of plastic bottles and containers are called resin ID codes. And they were created to identify the type of plastic resin that the containers are made of. And the resin number is usually surrounded by chasing arrow symbols. And we know that as a recyclable symbol. And sometimes you'll see a solid triangle instead. But the symbol isn't really meant to convey whether something is recyclable, it's just meant to tell you the resin number. And it doesn't necessarily mean that it can be recycled in your community. And so that's why EPA has recently urged to have the chasing arrow symbol decoupled from the resin identification codes, and to really set a very high bar for when something can be marketed as recyclable. So, categorizing plastics by resin identification codes that are coupled with that chasing arrow symbol does not accurately represent the recyclability of plastics, especially number three through seven, because those numbers don't really have end markets that are financially viable to be recycled. And so from a pollution prevention standpoint, and that's the office where I sit at EPA, there's really an opportunity to prevent harm to human health and the environment by making sure that consumers are presented with truthful marketing claims, including claims about recycling, because misleading claims can lead to a lot of that consumer confusion.

The EPA says the chasing arrow recycling symbol does not accurately represent which materials are recyclable. (Photo: lorigami, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

O'NEILL: From what I understand, the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, has these Green Guides, which are designed to help manufacturers avoid misleading environmental claims. And they were last revised in 2012. What kind of recommendations is the EPA making to the FTC?

ROMER: The Green Guides are incredibly important because they let markers know what they can and can't say, and companies all across the country pay a lot of attention to that. The main recommendation that EPA made in our comments on the Green Guides was to set a high bar for what can be considered recyclable, and specifically to require strong end markets for any products to be marketed as recyclable. And so currently, in the Green Guides, FTC requires that in order to market something as recyclable, that item must be collected in a substantial majority of communities, and they set that bar at around 60%. It must be sorted with existing recycling machinery, and then it has to be made into something else. And so that last part is a little bit fuzzy. So EPA, in the comments, is saying that the municipal recycler, after the collection happens, the sorting, that recycler has to be able to reliably find a market for that material, in order for it to be marketed as recyclable. And so it's just clarifying kind of that last step. And that really can get rid of a lot of that consumer confusion about what's recyclable or not.

Only 8.7% of plastic was recycled in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo: Alabama Extension, Flickr, Public Domain)

O'NEILL: And if we scale out and look at the overall plastic landscape in the United States, what portion of the plastic we produce is actually recycled, actually makes it through that process? And what happens to the rest that doesn't make it through that process?

ROMER: Overall, the recycling rate for materials in general, including composting, hovers around 32%, and has for several years now. And for plastics, the recycling rate is around 8% of what is generated actually being recycled. Some resins such as resins number one, and two, those have the highest recycling rates by far. And that's because those are worth a considerable amount of money on the commodities recycling market. And the rest of them, number three through seven, really don't have that value. So there are really two dynamics at play. One is your local recycling rules, what you're told to put in your curbside bins, and then the second is really the international commodities market. So, kind of what happens next, once you put your recyclables into your bins? And so, the next step is that it gets collected and brought to your local recycling facility, and there they're sorted into different categories, put into bales, and then sold on the commodities market to manufacturers to turn into new products. And if that is all working correctly, then that's a really effective mechanical recycling system. But it doesn't work for everything, because there are some materials that do not have an end market, meaning that no one buys them. And so those are the leftovers that you're talking about those end up either getting sent to landfill, or to incineration, kind of depending on where you live. And then some might also slip out into the environment as leakage as well.

O'NEILL: So, it sounds like there are updates in progress. But for now, what are consumers able to do on their end?

The Federal Trade Commission headquarters in Washington DC. The FTC’s Green Guides, which are designed to help manufacturers avoid misleading environmental claims, were last updated in 2012. (Photo: Norman Maddeaux, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

ROMER: I would say first, know your local recycling rules. So don't unintentionally contaminate recycling. Don't "wish cycle." So don't recycle something that could be a tangler. So plastic films are tanglers, things like garden hoses, clothing. And if your local program only accepts number one and number two bottles and jugs, because those are worth the most money on the commodities market. We follow those rules. If your local program accepts all rigid plastics, just follow those local rules. But then, even more importantly, when you're shopping, really focus on reducing and reusing materials before recycling. And so really the most effective way to reduce waste is not to make it in the first place. And you know, making a new product emits greenhouse gases, contributes to climate change, requires a lot of materials. So as a result, when you're reducing and reusing, you're really effectively saving natural resources, and sometimes saving money.

O'NEILL: Jennie Romer is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Pollution Prevention at EPA. Thank you so much for your time today, Jennie.

ROMER: Thanks so much for having me.



Washington Post | “Why the recycling symbol could end up in the trash”

FTC | “Green Guides”

FTC | “FTC Seeks Public Comment on Potential Updates to its ‘Green Guides’ for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims”

Regulations.gov | “Comment from EPA”

FTC | “Federal Trade Commission Act”

EPA | “Plastic Pollution Strategy”


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