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Why Industry and Government Want to Change the Rules Around a Universal Recycling Symbol

William Whitehurst/Getty Images global recycling symbol

“Local jurisdictions and their haulers spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually educating our customers on what is recyclable in an effort to improve recycling rates and reduce contamination and recycling costs. But those dollars are wasted if the packaging or materials include markings that falsely claim they are recyclable.”

This is the collective comment from Waste Management, Athens Services, Waste Connections, California Waste and Recycling Association, among other trash and recycling companies and industry groups, who issued the statement in support of  SB 343, which would tighten the reigns on use of the iconic “chasing arrows” recycling label. California’s governor has until Oct. 10 to sign or dismiss it.

In this last week prior to the final decision, local governments, nonprofits, and one of the country’s largest waste and recycling corporations shared more with Waste360 on what they think the legislation, dubbed by some as the “Truth in Recycling” bill, will mean. They answer questions like: How do you see the law impacting your operations as well as the state of recycling throughout California? And do you foresee both benefits and possible barriers associated with SB 343?

Authored by Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), the proposed legislation lays out a list of criteria, such as that if 60% of materials recovery facilities (MRFs) are recycling a product or package, it can carry the universally recognized label. The chasing arrows symbol would otherwise be off limits. Another big rule is that manufacturers cannot add materials that would render an item nonrecyclable.

CalRecycle would do a survey of recycling programs to determine what is collected and what has markets. And it would publish a list of products and packaging that are actually being recycled in California.

While plastic, battery, and other product manufacturers oppose SB 343, the solid waste industry came on in support, with Republic and Recology among the first to lobby for it. They are joined by environmental NGOs and local governments. They all see a problem in the loose use of an iconic symbol that they say can be confusing, if not deceptive. A Greenpeace USA survey mirrors their claims, finding hundreds of plastic products use misleading recyclable labels, based on what was actually recycled as of 2020.

Pete Keller, Republic Services vice president of Recycling and Sustainability, sees a potential twofold benefit of the legislation should it pass.

“Eliminating the use of a recycling symbol from products that are not truly recyclable will reduce consumer confusion. In turn this will help minimize contamination at our recycling facilities,” Keller, says.

Nationally, about 22% of the materials Republic now processes at its MRFs are not recyclable.

“Much of that volume consists of flexible plastics and films, which not only aren’t recyclable curbside, but cause problems with sorting machinery. Batteries are also problematic, especially lithium-ion batteries, which are extremely flammable if punctured or crushed,” Keller says.

Batteries are making their way to Republic’s MRFs because they display the chasing arrows symbol, believed by consumers to mean they can put them in their blue bins, when in this scenario the label simply means they can be received at take-back programs.

The Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts (LACSD) support the goals of SB 343. Like Keller, Habib Kharrat, head, Solid Waste Operations and Engineering, Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, says it’s about reducing contamination and empowering customers to make more informed purchasing choices.

The goal is straightforward and makes common sense in his eyes. But he believes it may be easier said than can be done, even with this proposed legislation. He anticipates there may be details to work out to mitigate unintended consequences.

He cites as an example that it has potential to add to recyclers’ challenges.

“One jurisdiction may have technology to economically recycle a material that other jurisdictions don’t.  If that material meets the 60% criterion, then all jurisdictions would continue to see it in their recycle stream, whether they can afford to recover it or not,” he says.

Further, what’s easily recyclable today may not be tomorrow and vice versa. Kharrat illustrates a potential resulting complexity of fast-changing markets: “If a product is deemed ‘nonrecyclable’ now but markets become more favorable in six months, it could take years for the state to reclassify the material as recyclable … So key outstanding questions are whether the system created by the bill can keep up with market changes and whether this approach will result in more or fewer materials being recycled.”

The bill does attempt to address in advance some possible glitches: mainly through a provision where, with approval from CalRecycle, if a material does not yet meet the statewide criteria, but producers can document it will not increase contamination, they can develop a plan to increase its collection and recycling. And they can continue to encourage consumers to put it in the blue bins.

Derek Dolfie, legislative representative for the League of California Cities, peers through the lens of municipalities.

“When non-recyclable items are placed in the recycling bin, cities must spend time, energy, and resources to sort out these materials … it can also affect the quality of the recyclable material and make it harder to find an end market. These added costs are born by city residents in the form of higher recycling bills.”

Strict, consistent labeling standards will help residents understand what they can recycle, and what they should throw in the garbage, he says.

“[And] ultimately SB 343 will help local government save money on collection and processing and prevent more items from being sent to the landfill. This bill is an important piece to the larger recycling system puzzle in California,” Dolfie says.

SB 343 follows on other California bills that have an overarching theme of “truth in recycling,” says Nick Lapis, director of Advocacy, Californians Against Waste, which co-sponsored the bill with the National Stewardship Action Council.

The latest, SB 343, makes clear that manufacturers must be truthful to consumers about whether their products will get recycled because MRFs must actually separate and sell them; prior the requirement was only about access to recycling with no guarantee that materials were getting recycled.  AB 1201 (Ting) updates labeling for compostable products and requires manufacturers to be transparent about whether their products actually will get composted. They must meet third-party certification requirements, and the term compostable can only appear on products that composters want in the green bins.  And AB 881 (Gonzalez) would prohibit counting plastic waste exports as being recycled, when the receiving countries have no end markets. 

“All three bills really get to the heart of restoring the public’s faith in the recycling and composting system. When a consumer sees that something is labeled recyclable or compostable, they should be able to trust that they can put it in the relevant bin without contaminating other recyclables or polluting communities overseas,” Lapis says.

Kharrat is hopeful that SB 343 could cut the flow of its most problematic incoming materials, like plastic bags; long, stringy plastic film; and electronic waste, which the agency fights to stay on top of.

“In 2020, we started-up new, state-of-the-art sorting equipment at our largest materials recovery facility.  This equipment uses a myriad of advanced technologies to economically produce clean bales. 

Nonetheless, having a cleaner recyclable stream coming into our facilities would make our processing more efficient and result in higher recovery rates,” he says.

Keller would like for SB 343 to help jumpstart a movement around transparency that spreads beyond California. He also hopes that it does more than simply force rules around labeling.

 “As with the minimum content legislation California passed last year (AB 792), we hope that other states will pursue similar truth-in-recycling legislation. Additionally, we may see brands and retailers adopting packaging that is readily recyclable today.”

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