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California Bans the Use of Misleading Recycling Symbols on Non-Recyclable Items

California passed a bill that bans the use of misleading recycling symbols on anything that's not actually recyclable.

Written by
Kylie Fuller

We all recognize the signature green arrows as a symbol of recyclability. The recycling symbol tells us a product is more sustainable and allows us to make informed consumer decisions. But did you know many products stamped with the recycling symbol aren’t actually recyclable?

It’s estimated that only 32% of recyclable materials are actually recycled in the United States, largely because of a sorting issue. The U.S. uses a numbering system for recyclable plastics called the resin identification code, where items are assigned a number from 1 to 7 that identifies the type of resin a plastic is made from. It also determines how (or if) the item can be recycled.

While 1 and 2 plastics are easy to recycle and are accepted in most curbside bins (like beverage bottles and detergent bottles), number 3 plastics—or PVC—can’t be recycled. Then there’s 4-7 plastics (including grocery bags, certain food containers, and disposable coffee cups), which are really difficult to recycle. Despite the issues with many of these materials, they’re all still labeled as recyclable.

Misleading advertising (or greenwashing) has serious consequences. Not only does it confuse consumers, but when non-recyclable products are sent to recycling facilities, it clogs down the system. Oftentimes, recycling facilities are so overwhelmed with non-recyclables that they need to send large batches of waste and recyclables alike to the landfill.

How California Is Changing the System

California legislators recently passed a bill that bans manufacturers from using recycling symbols unless they can prove the product can be recycled. That’s not just a win for consumers, but also for recycling companies, as they’ll be able to “cut down on the non-recyclable trash thrown in recycling bins that need to be transported, sorted, and sent to the landfill.”

“It’s a basic truth-in-advertising concept,” Ben Allen, a California State Senator 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.”

The bill, which is expected to be officially signed into law by California’s governor Gavin Newsom this week, would make it a crime for any corporation to use the recycling symbol on a product that hasn’t met the criteria of CalRecycle, the state’s recycling department. This doesn’t just include plastics: It covers all consumer goods and packaging sold in the state of California (with certain exclusions that are “already covered by existing recycling laws”). 

But what if you don’t live in California? How can you make sure your recyclables are actually being recycled? We’ve addressed three key ways you can get around greenwashing when it comes to plastics.

How to Make the Most of Recycling

1. Shop Smart

When you’re shopping, pay close attention to the number inside the recycling symbol. If you can purchase a level two plastic instead of a level six, for instance, it’s more likely to be recyclable.

2. Work With Your Local Facilities

Get familiar with your local recycling facility and ask them which numbers (1-7) they accept. Do they have any requirements for higher numbers or rules for sorting your recyclables? Every city is different, so by recycling in accordance with your local facility, you’ll ensure your recyclables are going where they’re supposed to.

3. Collaborate With Your Community

The California bill passed due to the collaboration between environmental groups, local governments, waste haulers, and recyclers. If you think your locale should implement similar regulations, joining an environmental advocacy group or talking to your local lawmakers could help push for similar legislation.