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Mass confusion spurs experts to take action over 'deceptive or misleading' trash symbol: 'That's what it was supposed to be'

In the letter, the EPA asked the FTC to swap the standard symbol.

Recycling symbol from plastics that are difficult to recycle

Photo Credit: iStock

After 50 years, the "chasing arrows" recycling symbol may be heading in a new direction, The New York Times reported

While it will remain widely in use on many recyclables, the Environmental Protection Agency wants the symbol to be retired from plastics that are difficult to recycle

What is the reason behind the change?

Plastic recycling has become a big issue over the last few decades, and there is a lot of confusion about what plastic can and cannot be recycled. 

Jennie Romer, a deputy assistant administrator at the EPA, was one of many involved in an April letter the agency sent to the Federal Trade Commission. More than 1,000 environmental groups also sent comments on the issue to the FTC. 

In the EPA letter, Romer wrote that consumers have long believed that if an item has the chasing-arrows symbol on it, it can be recycled. When it comes to plastics, however, this isn't the case, and the mark can actually be "deceptive or misleading." 

You've probably noticed that inside the symbol on plastics is also a number. This is a resin identification code given to the item by manufacturers that indicates the type of plastic in the product, and only certain numbers can actually be recycled. 

In the letter, the EPA asked the FTC to swap the standard symbol with a solid triangle on plastics that can't be recycled. They believe this change will clear the confusion around labeling and relieve recycling facilities from being inundated with plastics they can't process. 

Why is changing it important?

When plastic that can't be recycled is mixed in with materials that can, it contaminates the recycling stream. Further, once the non-recyclable items arrive at recycling centers, they have to be sorted out and sent to landfills, which raises costs for the facility. 

Currently, for a product to be considered recyclable, the FTC requires that at least 60% of the company's customers have access to recycling facilities that can process the item. The EPA also asks that the threshold be raised "much higher." 

The problem is that most plastic can't actually be recycled, so the symbol may be doing more harm than good. 

In the April letter to the FTC, one of the main arguments was that misunderstanding and misuse of the symbol are likely contributing to our planet's plastic waste crisis

About 40 million tons of plastic are thrown away every year in America, per Statista. A 2022 Greenpeace study showed that of that, only about 5% was recycled in 2021, a drop from nearly 10% in 2014. 

In 2018, China stopped taking millions of tons of plastic waste from the U.S. that it had been taking, magnifying the issue of how to handle plastic waste in our country. Without effective plastic recycling, the symbol simply can't work in the way in which it was initially intended. 

Gary Anderson, who designed the logo in 1970, told The New York Times, "I do see their point. It was meant to be an overarching symbol to say, 'Hey, this is recycled, this has been recycled or it's something you can recycle.' That's what it was supposed to be."

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