Recycling symbol can’t appear on non-recyclable items, California bill says

Discarded plastic bottles made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are bundled at a recycling center.

Enlarge / Discarded plastic bottles made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are bundled at a recycling center. (credit: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

The recycling symbol—those three arrows stamped on myriad plastic items—doesn’t mean what most people think it does, and a California bill wants to change that.

The California Legislature passed a bill yesterday that would ban companies from putting the recycling symbol on items that aren’t regularly recycled throughout the state. The bill is now awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature, and if signed into law, it would end a labeling practice that has confused consumers for decades and created major headaches for the solid waste industry.

The ubiquitous “chasing arrows” symbol wasn’t originally meant to appear on all plastics. Rather, it was designed by a college student for a contest in the early 1970s to symbolize paper recycling. The company that sponsored the contest released the symbol to the public domain. Confusion over the chasing arrows began in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when oil and plastic companies lobbied states to make resin identification codes—which included the arrows—mandatory on all plastic, even if it couldn’t be recycled easily.

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