Sustainable Living

Recycling Symbols Aren’t Foolproof—California Is Working To Change That

Francesca Krempa

Photo: Stocksy / Sergey Narveskih
Not every item labeled with the recycle symbol is meant to be recycled. In fact, many products with the signature "chasing arrows" stamp can't be recycled at at all, misleading consumers to clog an already crowded recycling system with unsustainable materials. Now, the state of California is working to change that.

California legislators passed a bill last week that bans manufacturers from using the symbol unless they can prove that the materials can be recycled and used in future production, reports the New York Times. The bill aims to rectify consumer confusion, stating that misuse of the label is "false advertising" that only harms our recycling system.

“It’s a basic truth-in-advertising concept,” says California State Senator Ben Allen. “We have a lot of people who are dutifully putting materials into the recycling bins that have the recycling symbols on them, thinking that they’re going to be recycled, but actually, they’re heading straight to the landfill."

While California is arguably more progressive in its approach to sustainability and eco-friendly living, it's no stranger to the recycling-related problems that persist nationwide. The country is in a climate crisis, and our current recycling strategy isn't helping. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that less than 10 percent of plastic consumed in the United States is actually recycled, with the remaining 90 percent ending up in landfills. Despite many companies adopting corporate sustainability initiatives, corporate carbon footprints don't seem to be shrinking. A bill like—which is the first of its kind in the country—aims to fix that.

California already bans businesses from "greenwashing," making environmental marketing claims without supporting evidence. However, If the law passes, the Times reports that companies will now have to prove their products pass a list of strict criteria in order to be stamped with the chasing arrows symbol. All criteria fall in-line with CalRecycle, the state's recycling department. It's not just plastics that are under scrutiny—the bill encompasses all consumer goods and packaging sold in California, except items already protected by existing recycling laws.

The symbol is “subconsciously telling the people buying things, ‘You’re environmentally friendly,’” said Heidi Sanborn, the executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council. “Nobody should be able to lie to the public."

The California recycling bill is slated to be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can learn more about recycling, sustainability, and how to adopt an eco-friendly lifestyle.

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