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September 23, 2021

The Chasing Arrows: California's Recycling Bill, Explained

Jean Lin

Less than 10 percent of plastic waste in the United States is recycled, according to the most recent estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In truth, recycling is broken: confusing labels, mixed materials, and varied policies by county all contribute to the complicated system in the U.S. today. 

The familiar “chasing arrows” symbol is a major contributor to the confusion. With no regulation on its use, it’s slapped onto nearly every plastic item, from single-use utensils, to cosmetic packaging— even children’s toys. While these items may be technically recyclable in a perfect world, much of it ends up in a landfill.

California’s new bill, SB-343, aims to change that. In addition to regulating use of the chasing arrows, the bill lays out specific criteria for plastic recycling in the state, as well as consequences for failing to comply with such criteria.

CalRecycle’s responsibility

California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, or CalRecycle, will be required to collect data on what types of plastics (and other materials) are the most common types to be recycled, focusing on the most populous 60% of the state. The findings must be published on CalRecycle’s website by January 1st, 2024.

In summary, CalRecycle  will be providing new guidance on what can and can’t be recycled, and businesses will need to take action based on these results. Ultimately, this means that the chasing arrows can’t be slapped on everything.

Untruthful, deceptive, or misleading claims as a crime

In addition to the chasing arrows symbol, any other environmental marketing claims, symbols, statements, and/or directions must be substantiated, and violations count as a misdemeanor. In fact, these recyclability claims can only be made for items recycled at a rate of at least 75%, determined by the CalRecycle findings. This is a step in the right direction: shifting the responsibility of waste management, or proper recycling, from consumers to the corporations that produce the waste in the first place.

If an item is made from mixed materials, the claim may only be displayed on the external packaging that is considered to be recyclable. As for the other components that aren’t, they must be made clear in the same or greater font, font size, or symbol size— no sneaky, ultra-fine print allowed!

Product and packaging

The bill would require not only the regulation of “environmental marketing claims,” (e.g. recyclability) for the products themselves, but also the packaging that they come in. Lots of plastic packaging with recyclability claims isn’t recycled: plastic bags for loaves of bread, vacuum-sealed plastic wrap for hot dogs, and plastic clamshells for... pretty much everything, for some reason.

Putting something in the curbside recycling bin that isn’t curbside recyclable can actually be detrimental. For example, plastic bags and other flexible plastics clog up processing and sorting machines, and workers have to stop the machines to cut down the bags, which are then sent to the landfill anyway.Thus, while it’s seemingly a small change, covering all consumer goods and packaging sold in the state is huge for the efficiency of curbside recycling.

PFAs means not recyclable

A packaging or product is already considered not recyclable if it has any inks, adhesives, or labels that interfere with its recyclability.

Another interference is being added to the list: PFAs. With this bill, PFAs will render a component unrecyclable— and with the rise in popularity for sustainable, “clean” consumer goods, it’s a good move. While PFAs have high functionality, these “forever chemicals” are also linked to a wide range of serious health hazards. 

While California’s SB 343 isn’t perfect, it’s ultimately a step in the right direction. Taking down false advertisement improves transparency, which is critical in shifting demand towards materials that are actually recyclable and more sustainable.

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