Are You Being Lied to About Recycling?


Image credit: Ivan Prole

Look at the bottle of juice you just drank. The detergent you're going to use. The plastic backer on the desk calendar. What's on all of them? That familiar "chasing arrows" graphic with a number in the middle. That means it's recyclable, right?

Sorry, but not quite.For all but the most forward thinking (and deep pocketed) locales, primarily only #1 and #2 plastics are regularly recycled. "Excuse me, what? How can that be? It says it's recyclable on here, are we being lied to?" you say? No, but you are in some ways being passively deceived. Companies are generally careful not to explicitly say that their packaging is recyclable, but they don't go out of their way to let you know it likely won't be, either.

So why are so few types of materials getting recycled? Simple. Economics. As I've been witnessing, and you may have too, recycling is a business based on demand for the resulting materials.

And when it comes to plastics recycling, if virgin plastic costs less since petroleum isn't (currently) out of control expensive, there's less incentive to use recycled materials in your products, unless your particular customer base wants it. Add to that a chaotic economy with more cost focused consumers, and you have a recipe for eco disaster. That is, if your products charge more than the conventional options.

So why the chasing arrows symbol? It means it's recyclable, yes? No, it's largely an identifier, used by processors to quickly sort by type. With a large percentage of product packaging bearing these symbols, it's diluting the meaning of recycling. Especially #7, which is a catch all category for materials that don't fit in the #1-6 types.

This is particularly insidious, as there is next to no chance this will be recycled, but it has a symbol on it that has become tightly linked in the broader public's mind that it means recyclable.

What to do?

Simple: Take the chasing arrows off, just have a number for recycling processors sake. Would that decrease the number of products recycled? Perhaps. But perhaps it will reduce the amount being sent to recyclers that cannot be processed, and then needs to be shipped to a waste processor, incurring unneeded costs, which recyclers cannot afford to incur these days.

What else could/should companies do to address this? Am I off my rocker? Let's hear it, below.

Read more on recycling & greenwashing:
98% of Green Labeled Products are Actually Greenwashed
Greenwashed Packaging Cartoon Says it All
10 Ways to Recycle Your Pantyhose

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