California Law Will No Longer Allow Companies to Slap the Recycling Symbol on Everything

California Law Will No Longer Allow Companies to Slap the Recycling Symbol on Everything
Photo: Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

California wants to be the first U.S. state to prohibit companies from labelling their products as recyclable unless they can prove that the product is actually being recycled.

The recycling symbol — those three “chasing arrows” that form a triangle — appears on all kinds of things: plastic forks, cosmetics containers, and even window panes. Yet its ubiquity obscures an important truth: While the items bearing the symbol may be recyclable, not many are actually recycled.

There are no hard and fast laws governing the use of the symbol and no guidelines companies have to meet in order to use it. But the bill passed by the California state assembly this week would change that.

The measure, called Senate Bill 343, would require the state’s recycling agency CalRecycle to collect data on which types of plastics and other materials are most commonly recycled across the state. Corporations would then be legally barred from using the word “recyclable” or the recycling symbol on any products made of materials that are not recycled at a rate of 75% or higher. Products would also have to meet other criteria, including not containing toxic compounds like PFAS.

“Consumers deserve accurate and useful information related to how to properly handle the end of life of product or packaging,” the measure says.

The bill must now be approved again in the Senate. It will then head to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for final approval.

Under advertising regulations, California already bars companies from using words like “recyclable,” “compostable,” or “biodegradable” without evidence. The new measure provides end users with even more clarity about the products they buy or use.

State Sen. Ben Allen, the bill’s lead sponsor, told CalMatters his experience grabbing the newspaper every morning inspired him to put forth the proposal. The paper comes in a plastic sleeve marked with the three arrows, and so he would toss the bag in the recycling bin. He later learned that though plastic bags are technically recyclable under perfect lab conditions, they weren’t really getting recycled anywhere in the state. That means the sleeves were merely clogging up processing plants, contributing to the continued breakdown of the American recycling system.

A 2019 study from the Consumer Brand Association shows that most U.S. consumers presume that all items marked with the three arrow symbol are recyclable. But in California, less than 15% of single-use plastic is actually recycled.

The fossil fuel industry, which produces plastic, has long known that recycling is not a viable solution to plastic waste even as its pushed recycling programs as an individualized solution. The oil and gas industry is also planning a major increase in plastic production to make up for sagging demand for its products elsewhere, worsening the problem. A sting by Unearthed earlier this year that snared Exxon lobbyists also showed how the company downplays its role in making plastic while also fighting plastic bans.

If it passes, the California bill could serve as a model for other states, helping to cut through the facade that recycling makes plastic sustainable. Less than 10% of all plastics are recycled in the U.S. annually. Last year, a Greenpeace study found that that though seven different kinds of plastic are frequently marked with the recycling symbol, just two types are frequently accepted by the country’s 367 recycling facilities. Making that clearer is one step, but

Other states are also pursuing strategies to reduce plastic waste. Lawmakers in Maine have passed legislation requiring companies to pay for recycling rather than putting the onus on end users.

“Many plastic manufacturers are clearly overusing the recycling symbol to make their products seem sustainable even if they’re not. These companies are misleading consumers to buy and use plastic products, tricking them into thinking they’re avoiding landfill waste when they toss them in the blue bin,” Jenn Engstrom, state director of California’s Public Interest Research Group and a supporter of the new measure, said in a statement. “Consumers have the right to know if the products they are using are recyclable or not. This transparency is critical to shifting the market towards more recyclable material.”