We’re all familiar with the “chasing arrows” symbol on the bottom of plastic containers. Most people look at that symbol, see that the product is “recyclable” and toss it in the recycling bin. We then make the assumption that our plastic bottle, yogurt container, or bubble wrap actually gets recycled. The reality? Most of the time it doesn’t.
The “chasing arrows” symbol that appears on the vast majority of plastic products leads consumers to believe that most of their plastic is recycled and diverted from landfills or spared from entering the marine ecosystem. Recycling data has shown this is not the case.
In fact, the symbol actually represents which polymer, or type of plastic, makes up the product. And across the various polymers that are used to create packaging, only 13.6 percent of plastic packaging generated was recycled in 2018 (U.S. EPA, n.d.).
To support a healthier, more sustainable economy, we need more transparency around recycling.
Today, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides guidance, called Green Guides, for manufacturers to only label products as recyclable if at least 60% of the population where the product is sold can recycle it via curbside recycling. But this guidance is insufficient to deal with the plastics crisis on our hands.
New “truth in labeling” rules could help consumers make better choices. “Truth in labeling rules” would put stricter requirements on how products are labeled, for example, only allowing a “recyclable” stamp on bubble wrap if a high percentage of bubble wrap actually gets recycled.
The federal government has opportunities to make progress here in the short term. Recently, the General Services Administration (GSA) requested public feedback on the use of plastic in both packaging and shipping by the federal government. Pack Green Coalition submitted comments urging GSA to require more stringent truth in labeling provisions in its purchasing.
In addition, the FTC is due to revise the Green Guides this year. We need stronger truth in labeling recommendations in FTC’s Green Guides for the following reasons:
Consumers should be able to make purchasing decisions based on transparent claims about recyclability and demonstrated recycling rates.
Clearer communication about which types of plastics are recyclable will reduce issues at recycling facilities and improve their efficiency.
These fixes will lead to higher recycling rates, which will increase confidence in the U.S. recycling program.
As an organization driven to advance the transition to a circular economy by replacing unnecessary plastic packing with sustainable alternatives, we believe that consumers should be equipped with accurate information about the end life of their products. We can’t achieve a circular economy if purchasing decisions are based in false assumptions that our packaging materials are being repurposed and fed back into the economy. If FTC takes advantage of this opportunity to improve truth in labeling, the market will favor effective sustainable packaging alternatives that are available today.
One model for GSA and the FTC is California’s recent truth in labeling success: the passage of SB 343. This law deems that the use of the “chasing arrows” symbol on a product is deceptive if the product doesn’t meet California’s recyclability requirements, which include:
The product or packaging has a demonstrated recycling rate in CA of at least 75%.
For items that are not collected via curbside recycling, collection programs must recover and recycle at least 60% of the product or packaging before January 2030 and 75% after January 2030.
The product is made of a material that is collected for recycling programs for jurisdictions that encompass at least 60% of CA’s population.
The product is made of material that is sorted into defined recycling streams that are reclaimed at appropriate facilities that meet the requirements of the Basel Convention.
We need to expand the requirements to use recyclability claims so that consumers can have confidence that seeing the “chasing arrows” symbol on a product truly represents the material is likely to be recycled and re-enter the economy.