Is the Recycling Symbol Doing More Harm Than Good?
Reactions to the PBS/Frontline exposé Plastic Wars, which focused on the dubious origin and the plastic industry’s ongoing fast and loose use of the recycle symbol and resin codes, ranged from handwringing to outrage.
This symbol is stamped, usually on the underside, on nearly every plastic package consumers encounter. The implied ‘War’ was framed as a battle between the plastics industry and those who care about the impacts of plastics on environmental sustainability. But like so many issues in our headline driven world, we must move beyond reaction, emotion and blame, dig into the issue, and find nuggets of value that will help us move forward. It’s not a stretch to believe that the recycle symbol was conceived by the plastics industry as a PR angle to support a questionable aim. On the other hand, Plastic Wars surfaced a critical issue facing recycling today, but left many of us feeling powerless and frustrated rather than inspired.
So how do we contribute to a solution?
Most importantly, let go of the idea that the recycle symbol is your guide. It may have added value in the infancy of plastics but has now become downright harmful to the economics of the recycling business. Recycling is hyper-local and recyclability is driven in large part by the equipment installed at the local facility and the end markets available to that facility. Simply sporting a recycle symbol does not mean the item can be recycled in our area. Consult your printed guidelines. If the item in question isn’t there, use the Waste Wizard tool on Western’s website. Know before you throw. If you can’t find the information, it’s likely not recyclable.
Second, adopt a personal consumption philosophy around plastic:
- Refuse: Refuse to buy or use single use anything.
- Reduce: Forego packaging whenever possible.
- Reuse: Be creative about how the item could be reused – at least once.
- Recycle: If you commit to the first three, there should be a whole lot less to deal with. And remember: NEVER put your recycling in plastic bags!
We have been habituated for decades to look to the recycle symbol and resin codes for guidance. It’s time to bid them farewell in the interest of making the recycling business sustainable for the long haul.
Read additional commentary from EcoCycle on the harmful downside of the recycle symbol.