Recycling symbol on plastics: State Sen. Ben Allen wants to bring ‘truth to advertising’ with new bill

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

The three arrows arranged in a rotating triangle are often on the bottoms of many plastic bottles, cartons, and food containers. You’ve probably checked for it before tossing your used yogurt cup into the blue recycling bin, thinking you did your part for the environment. But that cup will likely end up in a landfill, as the EPA reports that 8.7% was the recycling rate in 2018. 

Now new California legislation would restrict what kinds of plastics can have the famous “chasing arrows” recycling symbol on them. It’s waiting for Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature. 

Democratic State Senator Ben Allen from Santa Monica wrote that bill, and he expects Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign it.  

“One of the problems is that we have all sorts of plastics getting thrown into the system, it makes it very difficult to sort, and as a result, a lot fewer plastics get recycled than ought to be,” he tells KCRW. 

If a number one or two is inside the “chasing arrows” symbol, then the product has a high likelihood of being recycled, Allen points out. 

The lawmaker shares that he used to put the plastic sleeve of his physical (Los Angeles Times) newspaper into the recycling bin each day (the sleeve had a recycling symbol on it). 

“It turns out, once I learned a little bit more about this, putting that bag into the recycling bin actually ends up making the system worse. Why? Because … those sleeves end up gumming up the assembly line machines at the recycling centers.” 

That means you shouldn’t put saran wrap into the blue bins either, he adds. 

Why are so many items allowed to have the chasing arrows symbol on them — with various numbers inside those arrows? The plastics industry largely put that system in place 20-30 years ago, Allen explains. 

“Those different numbers represent different plastic types, different resin types. And it's a real problem because at the end of the day, it’s the consumers and cities and the waste management system that are picking up the tab for the dysfunction caused by all this unrecyclable plastic that’s out on the market. We're all paying more now in our waste collection rate because of how broken the system is.”

Allen is pushing a “truth in advertising concept” with this new bill. 

“What we're trying to do with our bill is to say, ‘Look, you shouldn't be able to put the recycling symbol on your products if you have a type of plastic that’s not getting recycled, if it's not truly recyclable in the real world. A lot of these items are theoretically recyclable under perfect conditions, but they're not actually recycled or recyclable under real-world conditions.”

Under the bill, plastic products that aren’t easily recycled would have that resin identification code — placed inside a solid equilateral triangle. It’s similar to the “chasing arrows” symbol and could still be confusing. 

“I know, I know. Look, this is as good as we could have gotten. ... Recyclers will still need to see the resins type, as these products make their way through their systems. But I guess what I'll say is — people don't think of … just a straight triangle as a recycling symbol. What they think of is the ‘chasing arrows’ system,” Allen says. 

Why not go with a circle or square instead? Allen says his team negotiated this with the manufacturers, but federal standards call for the triangle.

“I'd like to see if we could encourage our federal partners to change the rules … to move more in the direction we're trying to go. … We've given them several years to allow for greater harmony … with various state laws,” he says. “It's our strong hope that this will finally alert everybody that … we need to start talking honestly about recyclability all over our country, that we'll start to see laws in other states and federal law that will finally require truth in advertising.