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Save Recycling, Ban the Symbol? California Aims to Clear the Confusion

Many of us are familiar with the triangular “chasing arrows” recycling symbol that can be found on products and packaging
Many of us are familiar with the triangular “chasing arrows” recycling symbol that can be found on products and packaging. Consumers may believe they are doing their part for the environment when purchasing items with the recycling symbol and placing these items into their blue recycling bins, but contrary to popular belief, many items that display the recycling symbol or otherwise claim to be recyclable cannot be recycled in municipal recycling facilities and end up in landfills. 
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California hopes to put an end to this mix up with a new law that will strictly regulate what products or materials can display the recycling symbol. 

Background

Although paper and metals are often recycled, the same cannot be said for plastics. The majority of plastic used nationwide is not recycled and is instead incinerated or enters landfills. Non-recyclable items such as snack pouches, plastic films, grocery bags and other packing material often get tossed into recycling bins, only to clog or do other damage to municipal sorting equipment. 

Another common problem occurs when “recyclable” products or materials contain components, inks, adhesives, or labels that prevent an otherwise recyclable item from being recycled. In addition, some items that are truthfully marked or advertised as recyclable must be recycled through special programs, such as store drop-off programs, rather than through municipal recycling programs. 

New California Requirements 

Under the new California law, virtually all products or materials that display the recycling symbol or are marketed as recyclable will need to meet detailed recyclability criteria. Most notably, a product or packaging will be considered recyclable in the state only if it meets the following requirements:

  • The material is collected for recycling by recycling programs for jurisdictions that collectively encompass at least 60 percent of the population of the state;
  • The material is of a type and form that routinely becomes feedstock used in the production of new products or packaging, meaning it is sorted into defined streams for recycling processes by large volume transfer or processing facilities and sent to and reclaimed at reclaiming facilities;
  • The material does not contain components, inks, adhesives, or labels that prevent the item from being recycled; and
  • The material does not contain certain intentionally-added toxic chemicals or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

In order to determine which materials satisfy these criteria, the state will conduct a survey of waste disposal facilities every five years and publish a material characterization study. 

Any items that are not recyclable through curb-side pick-up will be deemed recyclable in the state only if the non-curbside collection program recovers at least 60 percent of the items prior to 2030, and at least 75 percent thereafter. 

Implications for FTC’s Recyclability Standard

The California standard is stricter than the standard established by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its Green Guides. Similar to the new California standard, the FTC permits advertisers to make unqualified “recyclable” claims when recycling facilities are available to at least 60 percent of consumers or communities where the item is sold. Unlike California, however, the FTC also permits advertisers to make qualified recyclable claims when recycling facilities are available to less than, and potentially significantly less than, 60 percent of consumers or communities, so long as the advertiser clearly discloses the limitations on availability of recycling facilities. For example, the FTC permits an advertiser to label a product or material as recyclable even if “recycling facilities are available only to a few consumers” so long as they qualify the claim with a statement such as ‘‘This product [package] is recyclable only in the few communities that have appropriate recycling facilities.” Notably, the FTC will conduct a review of the Green Guides in 2022, which may lead to changes to its current guidance for recyclable claims and other environmental advertising claims. 

The California law therefore appears to significantly limit the use of the recycling symbol and recycling claims on products or materials that cannot be recycled through curb-side municipal recycling programs in at least 60 percent of the state. Advertisers wishing to advertise as recyclable an item that cannot be collected curb-side will need to have a very effective non-curbside recycling program in place. 

Conclusion

Despite being restricted in scope to California, the law is likely to have a significant impact on recyclable claims in the US, particularly as consumers and brands are increasingly seeking out products with smaller environmental footprints. However, many consumer products made with recyclable materials cannot be recycled through curb-side collection programs. Brands seeking to make the recyclable claim (including chasing arrows) will need to closely scrutinize their products/packaging and available recycling programs before the law takes effect January 1, 2024.

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