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Why the recycling symbol could end up in the trash bin

The EPA is joining with environmental groups to ditch the circular arrow symbol so consumers are more aware of what plastics can truly be recycled

Steve Wright, an employee at the Unity Area Regional Recycling Center in Thorndike, Maine, moves a divider while loading bags of plastic containers into a semitruck trailer in June 2021. (Gabe Souza for The Washington Post)
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For decades, three arrows pointing in a triangular loop have been the iconic symbol for recycling, but that could change. The Environmental Protection Agency — along with thousands of environmentalists and individuals — are urging the Federal Trade Commission to drop the symbol from plastics that aren’t actually recyclable.

Misleading labels and false claims about “green” products confuse the public about what can and cannot be recycled or composted, according to the EPA. Environmentalists are urging the FTC to update its Green Guides — designed to help marketers avoid misleading consumers with environmental claims — to combat the problem.

“We want consumers to get the information that they need to protect human health and the environment,” said Jennie Romer, the deputy assistant administrator for pollution prevention from the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “FTC’s Green Guides are really an essential tool to combat deceptive advertising and prevent pollution.”

Here’s what you need to know:

Why is this happening now?

Since 2018, U.S. companies and local recyclers have grappled with a glut of low-value plastics after China effectively banned the import of plastics and other materials. With no markets for what they have collected, regional processing plants have been burdened with paying disposal costs for non-recyclable plastics, Romer said.

“There’s really not a point in collecting and sorting material that then doesn’t have anywhere else to go and ends up going to landfills or to an incinerator,” said Romer, who wrote the EPA’s comment.

Though the recycling landscape has changed, the FTC has not updated its Green Guides in response.

To Romer, the Green Guides need to be updated to prevent greenwashing — misleading claims about environmental impacts — and ensure that consumer expectations are aligned with the ways products are marketed.

Many environmentalists agree.

Companies are “purposely misleading people” by labeling throwaway plastic packaging as recyclable, said John Hocevar, the oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA.

“We have been seeing really widespread use of misleading labels by retailers and consumer goods companies implying that items and especially packaging are recyclable when they aren’t,” Hocevar said.

What do the recycling codes mean?

Salad trays, milk jugs, clear drink bottles and other household items all are stamped with the recycling symbols — circular arrows with a number in the middle. But what do the numbers really mean?

The resin identification code was created to categorize different types of plastics in the late 1980s. The seven categories alert recycling facilities to the type of resin found in each object.

According to Patrick Krieger, the vice president of sustainability for the Plastics Industry Association, the codes were originally placed on products so they were readily visible to people hand-sorting plastic.

Are the labels misleading?

Not all resin numbers are recyclable, according to environmental experts. But putting the number inside the recycling symbol has led consumers to believe that they are.

Combining the recycling symbol with the resin identification code “does not accurately represent recyclability as many plastics (especially 3-7) do not have end markets and are not financially viable to recycle,” the EPA said to the FTC in its comment. The EPA stated that the pairing is “confusing” for consumers.

Resin No. 1 and 2, like bottles and jugs, are the most readily and economically recycled resins in the United States, according to the EPA. Greenpeace USA argues that No. 1 and 2 bottles and jugs are the only plastics that can legitimately be considered “recyclable.”

“Just because there’s a recycling symbol on packaging doesn’t mean that you should put it in the recycling bin,” Hocevar said. Most single-use plastic isn’t recyclable at all. Even No. 1 and 2 plastics can only be recycled once before they ultimately end up in a landfill or incinerator.

Recycling categories 3 to 7 undermine the efficiency of the recycling process and are costly to collect and sort, Hocevar said.

“The problem is that if you put 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 in the bin, they are not going to be recycled and they have to be sorted and removed from the recycling stream,” Hocevar said.

What does the plastics industry think?

Krieger of the Plastics Industry Association doesn’t agree that labeling is misleading. Krieger said that claims that certain plastics shouldn’t be labeled recyclable aren’t true. According to Krieger, the industry has recycled more than 1 billion tons of Resin No. 3.

“That’s a very common misconception [that] often is perpetuated by plastics critics who recognize that people love plastic,” Krieger told The Washington Post.

Krieger said plastic critics are “muddying the waters” by creating confusion about what is recyclable to undercut confidence in plastic.

How do U.S. recycling rates compare with other countries?

In 2016, the United States generated more than 42 million metric tons of plastic, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. According to Greenpeace, only 5 percent of the plastic that the country produced was recycled in 2021.

The global results are even more grim.

About 23 percent of global plastic waste was either improperly disposed of, burned or leaked into the environment, the EPA cited in its comment to the FTC. Plastics make up between 70 to 80 percent of waste that ends up in the environment, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

What should people do instead?

It’s challenging to walk into a supermarket without purchasing a bunch of single-use plastic, but people need to avoid it as much as possible, Hocevar said.

People should shift their focus beyond viewing recycling as a solution to the plastic crisis, Hocevar said. Instead, people need to reduce the amount of plastic they buy, and reuse and refill it.

“We have to stop thinking of all this throwaway plastic as recyclable and treat it for what it is: a very problematic type of waste,” he said.

Romer suggests paying close attention to the labels and purchase items in No. 1 and 2 containers that have the highest chance of being recycled into another item. Individually, people should bring their own bags, water bottles and cups to prevent pollution.

When will federal officials issue a decision?

So far, the FTC has received more than 7,000 comments suggesting updates to its Green Guides — including those from the EPA — since the review was announced in December. But it is unclear whether change will happen anytime soon.

Mitchell J. Katz, a public affairs specialist at the FTC, said the agency does not discuss submissions received during the public comment period until all have been reviewed and evaluated.

If you would like to submit a comment to the FTC about ways that the Green Guides could be updated, send your suggestions here.