Reducing the Reuse of the Recycle Sign

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By Hunter Marion.

In 2021, California passed a law restricting the use of the classic recycling symbol upon products that are not truly recyclable. Last May, this law, and substantial complaints over the years, triggered an official comment by the EPA against the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This comment encouraged the FTC to update its Green Guides to regulate the symbol’s use more stringently amongst plastics companies.

At the heart of this issue, the EPA, several concerned environmental groups like Greenpeace and Beyond Plastics, and even the Biden Administration have found that the use of this symbol perpetuates plastic pollution and misleads consumers. This misleading stems from the linked usage of the recyclable symbol with “resin identification codes” (RIDs) on single-use plastics.

Simplified, RIDs range from 1 to 7, with 1-2 being plastics that are generally able to be successfully recycled, while plastics labelled 3-7 are instead trashed in landfills or incinerated. However, the general recycling populace usually knows nothing about these numbers, identifies the recycling symbol, and throws all their plastic into the same bin. Doing this creates a dramatic chokepoint for waste collection companies who must separate and sort the mixed plastics at their materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Consistently backed up and under pressure, a sizable portion of these plastics are not properly separated and are often dumped or burned.

While banning the recycling symbol for non-recyclable products would help cut down rampant waste and curtail decades of greenwashing, environmental advocates still push for the total reduction in plastics use by consumers entirely. Both Greenpeace and Beyond Plastics reported that in 2021 only 5-6 percent of the total plastic produced by the U.S. was effectively recycled. Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced every year, 42 million tons in the U.S. alone.

Greenpeace’s John Hocevar says that 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.” This should be the most important takeaway from this issue. Plastic, no matter how recyclable, is not a viable product that should be used on a mass scale. It should not be ubiquitous to almost every aspect of our lives. Instead, like Hocevar and Judith Enck from Beyond Plastics suggest, we should strive to distance ourselves from purchasing or using plastics in our everyday lives. Instead of getting fixated on the recycling portion, we should focus on the widescale reduction and, if possible, safe reuse of plastics rather than making more.

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