In California, that recycle symbol doesn’t always mean what you think it means

Every morning when State Senator Ben Allen picked up the newspaper outside his Santa Monica house, he peeled off the plastic bag with the triangular recycling symbol and tossed it where he thought it belonged: a blue trash can.

But Allen soon learned that he was “wishcycling” – he carefully sorted items with the recycling symbol only to find that they were not being recycled.

“It is technically Recyclable under the best conditions at 1,000 degrees in a laboratory in San Marino. But … they are not recycled in the real world, “the Democrat said at a hearing of the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee in June.

This scenario is not unique. Despite the best intentions of Californians diligently trying to recycle yogurt pots, berry containers, and other packaging, it turns out that at least 85% single-use plastics in the state are not really recycled. Instead, they end up in the landfill.

“Americans find recycling … more confusing than building IKEA furniture, paying their taxes, gambling on the stock market, or understanding their spouse,” Allen said, citing a study by the Consumer Brands Association.

This confusion inspired Allen to write a buckle that buckles up What types of plastic packaging can tout the triangular symbol known as “arrows chasing”.

“If you can’t label an item as recyclable because we comply with environmental advertising laws, you shouldn’t be able to put the ‘hunt arrows’ symbol on your product,” Allen said in an interview.

Allen’s legislation is part of a larger 12-note package to reduce plastic and waste which the legislature is considering this year.

Proponents believe it will make Californians more understandable about what is, in general, recyclable – and what is not. Opponents in the plastics industry believe the bill could pile up waste in the landfill and increase packaging costs.

So far, the bill has progressed smoothly with the support of the legislative majority Democrats. But many others The laws to reduce plastic have failed in recent years due to resistance from industry. Allen’s past attempts to introduce comprehensive legislation that would ban non-recyclable plastic packaging died even as environmentalists – and a superstar surfer – urged his passage.

Amid these repeated legislative failures at the Capitol, environmentalists have Plastic recycling initiative eligible for national election in November 2022. It would impose a new one cent tax on single-use plastic manufacturersand demand that single-use plastic packaging, containers and utensils be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2030. The tax money would give a boost to recycling and environmental programs. The logic is that when you make plastic items, you also have to give something back to the environment because of the damage plastic can do – from bags floating in the ocean to Microplastics lurk in food and water.

Allen’s bill now going through the legislature is a much narrower, less ambitious way of addressing the recycling dilemma. Instead of a massive economic restructuring, it sets limits on what “recyclable” means – starting with the labels consumers see on everyday items.

“Americans find recycling … more confusing than building IKEA furniture, paying their taxes, gambling on the stock market, or understanding their spouse.”


It targets the number framed within the triangular arrow symbol – the resin identification code, which ranges from 1 to 7 depending on the type of plastic. Only those with a 1 or 2 (plastic bottles and jugs) are largely recycled in the US. Whether items with codes 3 through 7 are actually recycled depends on local waste management practices. Although some cities, including Sacramento and San Francisco, recycle items with codes 3 through 7, initially only products with codes 1 and 2 (like sodas and milk jugs) would bear the hunting arrow symbol. It would be eliminated from yogurt pots, take-away containers, and many other plastics.

This is a problem for the plastics industry because it would do packaging differently in California than in many other states.

It “would force companies to break other state laws … requiring only California packaging products to exist,” said Lauren Aguilar, who represents the Flexible Packaging Association of Industrial Manufacturers and Suppliers and AMERIPEN, which includes companies like Campbell’s, McDonalds and Kelloggs.

During the June hearing, MP Kelly Seyarto pointed out that if California had different policies from other states, it would come at a price. California-specific packaging could be expensive and make the Golden State’s already high cost of living even worse.

“These costs are borne primarily by communities that are predominantly poor and therefore do not really have the means to spend more and more on their food supplies,” said the Republican from Murrieta.

But the communities are already paying the price, argue environmentalists. Local waste collection rates are increasing because non-recyclable and recyclable materials are mixed in the blue bin. more sieving and sorting required in recycling plants and slow down the process.

Everyone learned that his newspaper cover with the triangular symbol was causing the same problem. “I thought, oh, this is recyclable – but actually I made things worse when I tried to do the right thing,” he said.

It “would force companies to break other state laws … requiring only California packaging products to be made.”


In response to complaints from the plastics industry, Allen amended the bill to give companies an additional 15 months to comply and encourage other states to follow the California approach.

However, this delay is not enough to get the support of the plastics industry.

“Although unintentional, (the bill) will result in less recycling and more materials going to landfills,” Shannon Crawford, lobbyist for the Plastics Industry Association, said in her statement.

Bell Gardens Democratic MP Cristina Garcia refuted the argument, saying, “Most of this stuff is already dumped, incinerated, or shipped, and we pretend we’re recycling it outside.”

The bill allows CalRecycle to decide which materials are “recyclable” and are allowed to carry the triangular symbol. It enables plastics manufacturers to demonstrate that their materials are recyclable so that they can be placed on the approved list.

“What is recyclable is not static,” said Nick Lapis, a lobbyist for the environmental organization Californians Against Waste.

Another option – not included on the bill, but on an environmentalist’s wish list: put a label that says “trash can” on anything that isn’t actually recycled.

“That would be very clear to the public and they would not throw it in the trash,” said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council.

The bill will be put to its final vote when the legislature convenes again on August 16 after their summer break.

CalMatters is a non-profit, non-partisan media company that explains California politics and politics.

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